Researchers embarked on a novel study intent on measuring what a Princeton philosophy professor contends is one of the most salient features of our culture — the ability to play the expert without being one.
Or, as the social scientists put it, to BS.
Research by John Jerram and Nikki Shure of the University College of London, and Phil Parker of Australian Catholic University attempted to measure the pervasiveness of this trait in society and identify its most ardent practitioners.
Study participants were asked to assess their knowledge of 16 math topics on a five-point scale ranging from “never heard of it” to “know it well, understand the concept.” Crucially, three of those topics were complete fabrications: “proper numbers,” “subjunctive scaling” and “declarative fractions.” Those who said they were knowledgeable about the fictitious topics were categorized as BSers.
Using a data set spanning nine predominantly English-speaking countries, researchers delineated a number of key findings. First, men are much more likely than women to master the art of hyperbole, as are the wealthy relative to the poor or middle class. North Americans, meanwhile, tend to slip into this behavior more readily than English speakers in other parts of the globe. And if there were a world championship, as a true devotee might appreciate, the title would go to Canada, data show.
The study drew from the Program for International Student Assessment, which is administered to tens of thousands of 15-year-olds worldwide. The test included a background questionnaire that captures demographic information, along with students’ attitudes toward the subjects they study in school. That section of the test included the questions about math knowledge.
The data revealed that boys across all nine countries were significantly more likely than girls to pretend expertise, with the difference between the two working out to nearly half a standard deviation in some countries — a big gap, statistically speaking.
BS gaps between girls and boys (measured in standard deviations from average)
Interestingly, the gender gap for this trait in the United States is the smallest among the countries studied, about half the size of the gap in England. Americans are, perhaps, more egalitarian in our exaggerations than our peers across the Atlantic.
There’s also a significant class-based difference, with respondents from the wealthiest households showing a greater proclivity toward overstatement than those from the poorest. As with gender, however, the gap in the United States is the smallest among the countries surveyed.
BS gaps by economic class (measured in standard deviations from average)
|County||Bottom 25%||Next 25%||Third 25%||Top 25%||Gap|
Finally, a between-country comparison finds that young people in Canada and the United States are the most likely to over-sell themselves overall, with those in Europe being much less likely to engage in such behavior.
Taken as a whole, the results appear to suggest that the countries with the greatest propensity toward bombast also have the smallest variances between groups living within them. In the U.S. and Canada, for instance, there may simply be so much BS going around that everyone ends up partaking in it.
In Europe, the trait is less widespread but more confined to males and the wealthy. That may result in less pressure on women and the non-rich to enhance their social standing through pretense.
BS by country (measured in standard deviations from average)
The study also found that the true practitioners are more likely to “display overconfidence in their academic prowess and problem-solving skills.” The individuals most likely to claim to be math whizzes, in other words, are also the most likely to claim expertise in subject areas that don’t exist. That finding suggests that people who are particularly boastful of their abilities should be treated with some skepticism.
Nevertheless, the study gives reason to believe there’s a useful life skill to be had here, such as the ability to bluff your way to success. “Being able to bulls--- convincingly may be useful in certain situations (e.g. job interviews, negotiations, grant applications),” the study authors write. That would be a plausible explanation for why kids from wealthy families are more likely to adopt this behavior: they’re taking cues from their successful parents.
The study also suggests that men’s higher propensity toward this behavior “could help them earn higher wages and explain some of the gender wage gap,” said study co-author Nikki Shure. “This has important implications for thinking about tasks in job interviews and how to evaluate performance.”
One caveat to consider is that the study subjects were adolescents. Though it seems a good bet to assume that personality traits developed as teens will carry over into adulthood, this study isn’t proof of that. “These 15-year-olds are most likely already thinking about applying to university or entering the labor market, both of which are points during which bulls---ing may serve as an advantage,” Shure said.
The authors also point out that their study was narrowly defined and restricted to the realm of mathematics. “Ideally,” they wrote, “future research should try to include a greater number of fake constructs in order to maximize precision of the bulls--- scale.”