Are bullshitters more intelligent?
Bullshit is all around us. You don’t have to look hard to find it. Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt published his bestselling book, On Bullshit, some 15 years ago. Frankfurt said bullshitting is different from lying: “A lie is deliberate and focused; to lie one must first know what is true. The bullshitter, in contrast, may have no idea what is true but is unconcerned by this. His eye is not on the facts at all… except in so far as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says,” Frankfurt said. Bullshitting is a skill, and we appear to be getting better and better at it. But are bullshitters really more intelligent or is that just a load of bullshit? You be the judge.
Bovine excrement (aka bullshit)
Although many of you will think this is absolute bullshit, it’s not, according to a study published in Evolutionary Psychology. Researchers say that people who bullshit their way through a conversation “may actually be more intelligent.” Bullshitters are great at making up explanations that aren’t based on facts or the truth. We’ve all encountered them and perhaps considered them stupid, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. People who can quickly come up with what might seem like a plausible explanation are smarter than we think. But the findings also showed that skilled bullshitters weren’t necessarily frequent bullshitters. Two studies with 1,017 participants examined correlations between cognitive ability, i.e., an individual’s willingness to bullshit, and the skill to do it well.
Participants used a five-point scale, ranging from “never heard of it” to “know it well and understand the concept to rate their knowledge of the ten concepts. The participants didn’t know that six concepts (examples, such as Sexual Selection Theory and General Relativity, etc.) were real and four (Subjunctive Scaling, Declarative Fraction, Genetic Autonomy and Neural Acceptance) were made up. Researchers then measured the willingness to bullshit based on participants who “claimed” to have knowledge of the made-up concepts. A sub-group of 534 participants was asked to make up the most convincing and realistic explanation they could for each of the concepts. The explanations didn’t have to be true, just creative and convincing.
The remaining participants became bullshit raters, i.e., they were asked to use a five-point scale ranging from “not at all accurate” to “very accurate” to judge accuracy, and “not at all satisfactory” to “very satisfactory” to rate how accurate or satisfying the answers were. They were also asked to rate the intelligence of the participants in the bullshitter group. The results were surprising. Most of the participants who produced satisfying or what were thought to be accurate explanations/definitions of the fake concepts also scored higher on a vocabulary test and did very well in abstract reasoning and non-verbal fluid intelligence tests, which assess an individual’s skill in analyzing and solving 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,” according to the researchers. The authors stressed that the findings were preliminary and that more research is need.
Smarter people less willing to bullshit
Another interesting finding was that being a good bullshitter didn’t automatically make a person willing to bullshit just because they are good at it. “Smarter individuals were less willing to engage in bullshitting despite their superior skills,” according to study author Mane Kara-Yakoubian. “This might be explained by their greater capacity to attribute mental states to others (i.e., theory of mind), enabling them to be more cognizant of when bullshitting will work and when it won’t.” One downside of being willing to bullshit is that individuals who are more willing to bullshit were more likely to believe “pseudo-profound” bullshit and “fake news,” according to a study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology. So, there you have it! Maybe there is some truth to the old saying “you can’t bullshit a bullshitter!”