The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why people think total nonsense is really deep

(Source: Flikr/ <a href="" target="_blank">Bruce Denis</a> )

Words can be inspiring, even when they're arranged into vague, fancy-sounding sequences that seem deep but say nothing.

Take the sentence "wholeness quiets infinite phenomena." It's complete and utter nonsense. In fact, it was randomly generated by a Web site. And many might have seen this immediately, or realized it after thinking it through.

But the truth is that a surprising number of people would likely have called the bogus statement profound.

"A lot of people are prone to what I call pseudo-profound bulls***," said Gordon Pennycook, a doctorate student at the University of Waterloo who studies why some people are more easily duped than others.

"Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena" was one of many randomly generated sentences Pennycook, along with a team of researchers at the University of Waterloo, used in a new four-part study put together to gauge how receptive people are to nonsense. Pennycook used a Web site -- which refers to itself with an expletive for the sentences it produces -- to generate the language samples.

In the first part, they asked nearly 300 hundred participants to rate the profundity of randomly generated sentences on a scale from 1 to 5. Not only did the statements receive an average score of 2.6, meaning that they viewed them as somewhat profound, but a quarter of participants gave them a score of 3 or higher, indicating that they considered them to be profound or even very profound.

In the second, Pennycook used real-world examples of pseudo-profound phrases, plucking tweets from Deepak Chopra's Twitter account that others have called vague or empty (like: "nature is a self-regulating ecosystem of awareness), along with the randomly generated sentences used in the first exercise. And the results were virtually the same. "They basically thought the tweets were just as profound as the randomly generated sentences," said Pennycook. "So they were equally bad at seeing the B.S. in both."

In the third and fourth, mundane statements (like "Most people enjoy some sort of music") and popular aphorisms widely considered profound (like "A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence") were included to make sure that people weren't merely branding everything as profound. While on average people tended to rate the truly profound (or at least comparatively profound) statements highest, many people did not. In fact, a quarter of the participants rated the pseudo-profound phrases the most profound of all.

The precise reasons that people see profundity in vague buzzwords or syntactic but completely random sentences are unknown. Some people might not realize the reason they don't understand something is simply because there is nothing to understand. Or they might just approach things they hear and read less skeptically.

There are also a few characteristics that seem to correlate with those who are more prone to pseudo-profound language. Specifically, the researchers tested willingness to accept pseudo profound statements along with a host of other personality characteristics. As they describe:

Those more receptive to bull**** are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions [beliefs in things for which there is no empirical evidence (i.e. that prayers have the ability to heal)] and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

"I would say that a lot of people are just far too open to everything," said Pennycook. "They aren't skeptical or critical enough of what they hear and read."

Pennycook isn't the first to take an interest in the proliferation and effectiveness of bull—many others, including Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher at Princeton, who contemplated the significance of the term in contemporary society in his 2005 essay and book 'On Bull****," have done the same. But he is rather unique in his approach. While others have focused on the intentions of the people selling the fluff, Pennycook is instead honing in on the things that seem to make people more vulnerable in the face of it.

"This is all still very preliminary, but the real significance of this paper, the point of the study, isn't just that it shows many people are receptive to things they shouldn't be; it's also that it demonstrates there is indeed a good way to measure how receptive someone is to B.S.," he said.

In other words, if you want to figure out how easily taken a friend is, you might want to start by asking them to look total nonsense in the face and tell you what they see.