Communicative Climate Change: Cloudy With A Chance Of Bullshit

In scientific and political arenas, much attention is given to the issue of climate change. Yet, there is another type of climate change that has also reached epidemic levels. It is communicative climate change.  

Furthermore, there is a pervasive and very insidious substance in our communicative climate that is contributing to this change. It often appears harmless, yet it is one of the most toxic substances in our interpersonal atmosphere. Although difficult to detect, it permeates almost every form of communication. We find it in our communications with our families, friends, businesses, organizations, or any place in which people work together, share information, and make decisions. The insidious, communicative substance is called “bullshit.”

What Exactly is Bullshit?

No longer just a joke punchline, bullshit has now reached the status of a technical term as used here and in philosophy and psychology, and it is now the focus of empirical research. Bullshitting is neither lying nor is it simply the act of engaging in casual conversation – although much of our casual conversation often does include mass amounts of bullshit. Essentially, bullshit emerges from communicating with little to no regard for truth, established knowledge, or what we would call genuine, verified, or qualified evidence. 

Importantly, bullshitting is also not the same as lying. There is a critical difference between bullshitting and lying. A liar actually knows and cares about the truth; the liar’s agenda is to detract us from the truth altogether. On the other hand, the bullshitter doesn’t know what the truth is.  He doesn’t care what the truth is, and he isn’t even trying to know. In fact, what the bullshitter says may actually be true, but he wouldn’t know it because he isn’t paying any attention to truth, established knowledge, or evidence for his claim. 

Bullshit also deals with intentions and motivations rather than content. You might say, “Pluto is a planet,” but have no care for the truth of that statement. By definition, your statement about Pluto would be a bullshit statement. However, if you say, “Pluto is a planet,” and say this after considering the definitions of a planet and perhaps taking a bit of time to look at evidence from astrophysicists, then, by definition, your statement about Pluto is not bullshit – it is an evidence-based statement (the antithesis of bullshit).  

Bullshit is a Very Big Problem

Bullshit is a problem in our communicative climate because it replaces evidence-based communication. Bullshit clouds judgments as to what is regarded as profound and meaningful information. For instance, people spend a lot of money on books from authors that claim, “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.” Many people find such statements to be profound. They are not! “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” Now, this is a profound statement. Yet, people are influenced by profundity language cues that make senseless bullshit sound profound. But it really isn’t!  

Bullshit also clouds what people remember as truth. For instance, hearing someone say, “Styrofoam was invented in Norway,” increases the likelihood of misremembering this false statement as something that is true, simply because someone has suggested it. If we’ve seen something before, our brains subconsciously use it as an indication that it’s probably true and not an indication that it may be false. Another problem with this is that cognitive psychologists (people who study attention, memory, and how we process information) have demonstrated that expertise and knowledge don’t always save us from the unwanted effects of bullshit on illusory truth.  

The biggest problem with bullshit is that it can negatively affect decision-making. Consider the 4,800 investors who put good money into Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Hundreds of investors included banks, investment firms, institutions, pension funds, and hedge funds, all with highly-educated and sophisticated people managing them. If smart people continue to exchange genuine, qualified, verifiable, and readily available information for bullshit, then we ignore our very best snapshot of reality. Without focusing on reality, people simply cannot make good decisions. Better information does not always lead to better decision-making, but better decision-making almost always requires better information.   

How to Begin Addressing Bullshit

Greater competencies in bullshit detection and bullshit disposal depend on first better understanding bullshitting behavior. Although many people appear to offer readily available opinions about how to accomplish this task, it is important to refrain from adding to what we would otherwise try to reduce. Such was the focus of research titled “Antecedents of Bullshitting,” published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 

Through two experimental studies, I examined the antecedents of bullshitting behavior. Specifically, I studied some of the conditions under which bullshitting behavior most likely to emerge, all of which were grounded in analytical philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s now famous speculations about the nature of bullshit outlined in his book On Bullshit.

The results of the experiments showed that bullshitting emerges in at least five different contexts. First, people appear to engage in considerable bullshitting when social cues make them feel obligated to provide an opinion about something of which they know relatively little about. As Frankfurt (1986) noted, people often feel obligated to speak as though they possess “informed” opinions about everything, and people appear to be especially likely to engage in bullshitting when it is clear that the social expectations to have an opinion are relatively great. Second, people generally perceive themselves to engage in relatively less bullshitting behavior as their knowledge of the discussion topic increases. Third, people appear to bullshit when they expect it to be relatively easy to pass bullshit. That is, people will engage in bullshitting when they anticipate ease in receiving a “social pass” of acceptance or tolerance for their communicative contributions. Fourth, and consistent with an ease of passing bullshit hypothesis, bullshitting appears to be attenuated under conditions of social accountability. For instance, when people are expected to explain their reasoning for a position to another person, bullshitting can be attenuated. Finally, the effect of accountability on bullshitting is conditional upon the expected attitude of the audience. When the expected attitude of the audience is consistent with the speaker’s attitude, speakers appear to feel free to bullshit, but when the expected attitude of the audience is inconsistent with the speaker’s attitude, speakers appear to attenuate their bullshitting.

Similar to bullshitting, very little is known about one’s ability to detect bullshit. Frankfurt speculated that most people are not worried about bullshit because they think they can detect it and avoid its unwanted effects. Unfortunately, people are surprisingly bad at detecting bullshit. Initial empirical evidence on the receptivity of, and sensitivity to, bullshit suggests that bullshit can often be misperceived as something profound. Such perceived profundity is especially likely among individuals employing more intuitive cognitive styles as opposed to more analytic or reflective cognitive styles. 

If people expect no one to challenge them on their opinions, people can bullshit it up all they like. And, in such contexts, appears to have a payoff. In subsequent experiments conducted in my research lab, the results suggest that bullshit can help strengthen a weak argument when the speaker owns up to it. That is, persuasion gets a bump when people frame relatively weak arguments as bullshit when they say, “I don’t really care what the research shows.” But the opposite effect is true as well: bullshit will weaken a strong argument.  

Finally, when are we people most susceptible to believing bullshit? Additional experimental data suggests that people are most susceptible to believing bullshit when they are tired or when misinformation comes from someone who shares their views. In not-yet-published research, sentences were generated from The New-Age Bullshit Generator — a website that creates quotes that sound profound but mean nothing — “Good health imparts reality to subtle creativity,” for instance — and attributed half to conservative political figures and half to liberal ones. When I showed these to people, they were more likely to rate the sentences as profound when they thought they came from a like-minded politician. Basically, if alleged authors agreed with one’s attitude, it was great stuff, but if they didn’t, it was propaganda.

We Can Redirect the Unwanted Communicative Climate Changes

Although it remains a question for empirical validation, we should be capable of reversing the unwanted effects of bullshit. In fact, it only takes one person to stop the unwanted effects. Injunctive norms (what people think they should do) can be more powerful than descriptive norms (what people actually do) in producing desirable behavior. In social psychological experiments on littering behavior, it only took one person to promote the behavior of throwing unwanted junk mail in the trash rather than on the ground. In social psychological experiments on conformity, it only took one decenter from the majority to eliminate the powerful influence of the larger group. 

Even in a sea of descriptive behavior information, oftentimes it only takes one individual to make salient the more powerful injunctive norm leading to more functional and desirable behavior. Armed with the power of evidence, and perhaps a few allies interested in the same, I believe each of us can play an important role in the struggle against bullshit.  

We can blame Facebook, Twitter, and web profiteers all we want for the proliferation of bullshit and unwanted communicative climate changes. Yet, at some level, the responsibility comes down to each of us having the baseline ability to search for truth, discern fact from fiction, and communicate what we know to be true, not just what we want or hope to be true.

These findings are described in the article entitled Antecedents of Bullshitting, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. This work was conducted by John V. Petrocelli from Wake Forest University.