Tell someone that you research bullshit for a living and… they’ll probably think you’re just bullshitting them.
But there’s actually a whole science behind the art of BS, one that analyses and dissects every pseudo-profound pretentious sentence stitched together so someone can sound smarter than they actually are.
“We define bullshitting as language that’s meant to impress others without any regard for the truth,” Mane Kara-Yakoubian, a Canada-based psychology student who has conducted research in bullshitting, told VICE.
Kara-Yakoubian first got into researching bullshit after she saw the similarities between artspeak and bullshit. Artspeak is the language used to describe art. You know, that exhibition hand-out or that tiny text printed next to an artwork describing it that leaves you feeling confused, irritated, exhausted and not intelligent enough.
“We did a study titled ‘Bullshit makes the art grow profounder,’ where we titled various art with a bullshit title, a mundane one, and no title,” Kara-Yakoubian said. “We found that people were more likely to be moved by titles that sounded superficially impressive.”
According to the researcher, the primary goal of bullshitting is to impress others.
“Bullshit is so ubiquitous because humans are social by nature, so if they can get social benefits from saying something, even if it’s not true, they will,” Martin Harry Turpin, a PhD researcher at the department of psychology at the University of Waterloo, Canada, told VICE. “We’re configured mentally by this need to succeed socially.”
Turpin, who is studying linguistic bullshit, points out that bullshitting is a tool to impress others by sounding more deep and profound than one actually is.
However, the ability to bullshit isn’t exactly the same as the ability to lie. A liar will completely disregard the truth, while a bullshitter is more likely to package the truth in a way that makes it sound enticing even when it’s not. Researchers also make a clear distinction between “bullshit” and “bullshitting.”
“Bullshit is the information contained within the message and bullshitting is the act of using this information to deliver a message in ways to achieve certain goals, as well as some of the possible motivations behind it,” Shane Littrell, who is currently pursuing a PhD in cognitive psychology with an emphasis on “bullshitology” or bullshit research, told VICE.
While bullshitting falls under the category of disinformation (the act of intentionally spreading false information), bullshit tends to fall in line with misinformation, which is incorrect or misleading information, Littrell added.
While BS is used by many of us on a fairly regular basis, it came to light as a subject of relative scientific significance following research conducted by psychologist Gordon Pennycook in 2015.
Pennycook’s study, titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” was the first empirical investigation conducted into how people respond to bullshit by using a bullshit receptivity scale. This prompted others to further explore the field of bullshit research with studies that looked into what made bullshit impressive, the correlation between art captions and bullshit, and whether BSing is a sign of intelligence (it is).
The art of making make-believe sound convincing is actually a super serious subject, yet it’s one that comes with many myths attached.
“People think it’s a cute or funny topic, and when you tell other scientists that you study bullshit, they don’t take it very seriously,” admitted Turpin. “But then, they’ll complain that their students bullshit all the time, which then impedes the ability to experience science with the goal of exploring reality.”
Researchers point out that while it’s easy to bullshit your way through any domain of scientific research, bullshit research is essentially also a study of the impact of misinformation.
“It’s part of the broader research area committed to examining the effects of misinformation,” said Litrell. “‘Bullshit’ is a fun word that attracts attention, I guess, because people feel that they’re getting away with using naughty language but ‘it’s OK because it’s science.’ But this growing area of research has uncovered some incredibly important insights into the mechanisms and processes for why or how people fall for or are otherwise persuaded by fake news, misinformation online, conspiracy theories, marketing scams, and even political propaganda.”
Littrell breaks down patterns of bullshitting into a) persuasive bullshit, which is motivated by a desire to impress, persuade, or fit in with others by exaggerating the truth about one's knowledge and ideas, and b) evasive bullshit, which is using vague statements to respond to situations where frank answers might result in undesirable social costs.
“Anyone can fall for bullshit if that bullshit appeals to certain biases they have in a way that overrides their ability to engage more critically with that information,” he explained. “This is clear in the way Americans on both sides of the political aisle can often be easily duped by misleading information that is presented in a way that appeals to their strongly-held political beliefs or biases.”
Littrell uses the example of spiritual guru Deepak Chopra to hypothesise that bullshitting can lead to huge profits and recognition. “Chopra has made millions of dollars from books and giving talks about ‘consciousness’ in which he liberally peppers his absurd claims with New Age-type buzzwords and jargon about quantum physics, in a way that makes what he’s saying sound more impressive to some people, even though what he’s saying is often meaningless gibberish.”
Other scientists too have criticised the “New Age guru” who advocates for alternative medicine, for making outlandish claims they feel are unscientific. Several of his tweets were used in Pennycook’s study to create a bullshit detector. Someone even made a “Deepak Chopra quote generator” to string together sentences from randomly arranged “profound sounding words.”
But is there a formulaic approach to bullshitting? Can it become a literal cheat code for life?
“Bullshitters tend to use doublespeak, which is a linguistic trick that manipulates people’s emotional perceptions,” said Turpin. “Like calling a slaughterhouse a meat processing plant to make it sound less harmful.”
This ability can be largely intuitive, and could be a gift of the gab that is easier for an extroverted person to hone. “You use impressive, flowery language, like instead of saying ‘potential,’ you say ‘potentiality’ so it sounds larger than life.”
The use of elevated pseudo-profound language is one prerequisite to bullshit like a pro. And if there’s one thing we’ve learnt from VICE’s very own Oobah Butler, who not only made a non-existent restaurant the top rated one on TripAdvisor but also faked his way to the top of Paris Fashion Week, it’s that confidence is key.
“You have to be confident to be convincing,” said Kara-Yakoubian. “Your goal should be to impress by using cliche buzzwords like ‘consciousness,’ ‘actuality,’ ‘space and time,’ and throwing them together with no concern for the truth.”
Good grammar is essential in the art of bullshitting, said Kara-Yakoubian. “You have to abide by proper syntax so it sounds reasonable as a statement.”
Persuasive bullshit functions like the “guru effect,” which is when people assume something must be important if it’s difficult to understand, Turpin noted.
“The world is full of bullshit, and the ways in which it is delivered is constantly evolving, and the speed with which it reaches people increases each year as social media use grows,” said Littrell. “So, people in my field have a lot of work ahead of us to help curb bullshit’s spread and provide people with the tools to fight back against it.”