There’s a distinct line between the truly profound and what sounds a bit like it might be profound. But isn’t. And doesn’t actually make any sense. At all.
Researchers call the latter thing “pseudo-profound bullshit” (seriously), and as funny as it sounds, it’s an important subject of scientific study. Why? Because the more we find out about pseudo-profound bullshit, the more we can learn about why so many people fall for it.
But seriously, a lot of the stuff David ‘Avocado’ Wolfe posts and shares doesn’t actually make sense. Like when he says “Chocolate lines up planetarily with the Sun”.
Hmm. That sounds profound – for a microsecond, maybe – but then you realise it’s unequivocally, undeniably bullshit of the most outrageous, pseudo-profound kind.
In 2015, Canadian scientists studying pseudo-profound bullshit discovered that people who buy into these kinds of pseudo-profound statements are also more likely to display lower cognitive ability, as well as being more prone to believing in things like conspiracy theories, the paranormal, and the powers of alternative medicine.
Inspired by that 2015 study, researchers in Sweden have now delved once more into the hazy sphere of pseudo-profundity, to see whether there’s any demonstrable link between how receptive people are to meaningless gibberish and their actual behaviour.
It turns out there is.
The new study, led by a team from Linköping University, surveyed over 1,000 people from the Swedish population and asked them to rate how meaningful (or meaningless) 14 sentences were, half of which were genuinely profound, and half of which were, well, bullshit.
- “A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence” (profound!)
- “Health and tolerance provides creativity for the future” (bullshit!)
- “Your teacher can open the door, but you have to step in” (profound!)
- “The unexplainable touches on the inherent experiences of the Universe” (bullshit!)
In addition to ranking these kinds of statements, the researchers also asked participants whether they had donated to charity in the past year, and gave them the option of answering additional survey questions, in which case a small sum would be donated on their behalf to a charity of their choosing.
Ultimately, what the team found was that participants who were the most receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit – ie. they rated the bullshit statements as meaningful – were also overall less likely to engage in prosocial behaviour, such as donating money to charity or volunteering their time for charity.
“To our knowledge, we are the first study that links reactions to bullshit to an actual behaviour rather than to self-reported measures,” one of the team, psychologist Arvid Erlandsson, explained to PsyPost.
“We find that people who are good at distinguishing the actually profound from the pseudo-profound are more prosocial.”
In light of the relatively small nature of the study’s sample – and the limited pool of statements the participants were surveyed on – the researchers acknowledge the limitations of their experiment.
“We see this finding as a small but interesting contribution to a fun and quickly emerging field of research rather than something groundbreaking or conclusive,” Erlandsson says.
Profoundly important, you might say.
The findings are reported in PLOS One.