People who have the ability and skill to bullshit their way through a conversation may actually be more intelligent, according to new research.
In a study published in the scientific journal Evolutionary Psychology, researchers found that people who are better at making up explanations for various concepts tend to be more intelligent than those who struggle to come up with bullshit. Could this finally explain why that classmate who BS-ed their way through an exam often scored higher than those who actually studied? Maybe, but the study also concluded that skilled bullshitters were not necessarily frequent bullshitters.
Researchers used 1,017 participants in two studies that examined correlations between cognitive ability, the willingness to BS, and the ability to do it well.
The participants were shown ten concepts and asked to use a five-point rating scale ranging from “never heard of it” to “know it well, understand the concept” to rate their knowledge of the concepts. Six of these concepts, such as Sexual Selection Theory and General Relativity, were real, while four concepts – Subjunctive Scaling, Declarative Fraction, Genetic Autonomy, and Neural Acceptance – were made up. The willingness to bullshit was then measured based on those who claimed to have knowledge of these made-up concepts.
To determine the ability to bullshit, a group of 534 of these participants were asked to produce the most convincing and satisfying explanation that they could for each of the above concepts. They were told not to bother about whether they were actually true, but to just be creative and convincing while making up their explanations.
Then, another sample group of participants, termed as “bullshit raters”, was asked to rate how accurate or satisfying these answers seemed using a five-point scale. This scale ranged from “not at all accurate” to “very accurate” to judge accuracy, and “not at all satisfactory” to “very satisfactory” to determine how well the explanations were framed. The bullshit raters were also asked to determine the intelligence of the participants in the former group.
Researchers found that most participants who were able to generate satisfying or seemingly accurate definitions of fake concepts also scored higher on a vocabulary test. Most of them also also aced abstract reasoning and non-verbal fluid intelligence tests, which measured their ability to analyse and solve problems.
“We find that those more skilled in producing satisfying and seemingly accurate bullshit score higher on measures of cognitive ability and are perceived by others as more intelligent,” the study concluded.
“Overall, the ability to produce satisfying bullshit may serve to assist individuals in navigating social systems, both as an energetically efficient strategy for impressing others and as an honest signal of one’s intelligence.”
Researchers however warned that these findings were preliminary, and could only be used as initial evidence. “Future work should seek to explicitly probe the causal relation between intelligence and bullshit ability if any such relation exists,” the authors stated.
Interestingly, the study also found that those who were good with their BS were not automatically willing to BS more just because they could.
“Smarter individuals were less willing to engage in bullshitting despite their superior skills,” study author Mane Kara-Yakoubian told PsyPost. “This might be explained by their greater capacity to attribute mental states to others (i.e., theory of mind), enabling them to be more cognisant of when bullshitting will work and when it won’t.”
In fact, researchers found that people who were more willing to bullshit were also more receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit. This was in keeping with another study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, which found that people who engaged in bullshitting more frequently tended to also be more susceptible to misleading information like fake news.
Kara-Yakoubian, a graduate student who co-authored the study with her mentors, explained that what motivated her to conduct this research was her finding that people couldn’t differentiate between pseudo-intellectual bullshit and artspeak, the language art scholars use to discuss art.
“The more I bullshitted an essay, the better my grade was. Naturally, the research grew on me; I could see its relevance in my life,” she said.