Bullshit susceptibility is associated with poorer metacognitive accuracy and illusory feelings of achievement

A series of two studies found that people who tended to perceive meaningless statements as profound (“bullshit susceptibility”) were less accurate in predicting their performance on creative problem-solving tasks. They also had difficulty distinguishing between solvable and unsolvable problems. The research was published in thinking and arguing.

A few years ago scientists discovered that some people tend to perceive meaningless statements as very profound or meaningful. This tendency is called “bullshit susceptibility”. Researchers studying this phenomenon have used an algorithm to construct sentences that are grammatically correct but utterly nonsensical (e.g., “Hidden meaning transforms unprecedented abstract beauty” and “Epistemological transformations herald a quantum leap toward synergistic manifestation multidimensional consciousness”.)

Such sentences are called pseudo deep sentences. Studies have shown that some people tend to interpret sentences like this as profound.

Further research found that people with high bullshit susceptibilities tended to be less analytical and more intuitive, more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and paranormal activity, more likely to judge fake news as accurate, and more likely to score poorly on various assessments of their cognitive abilities. They also tend to perceive meaningful patterns where none exist. Critical thinking training has been shown to reduce susceptibility to bullshit.

Study authors Tim Georgea and Mart K. Mielicki wanted to investigate whether susceptibility to bullshit is related to how accurately individuals assess their ability to solve problems. They argued that individuals who tend to perceive patterns where none exist may also consider themselves creative and good judges of creative problem-solving. They developed two studies. Both studies were conducted on groups of 100 Amazon MTurk workers.

In the first study, researchers used two types of tests: a Remote Associates Test (RAT) and an Alternative Uses Task (AUT). The RAT was about finding the word that connects other words in the task, while the AUT was about finding new ways to use a specific element. Both tests are considered creative tasks. Some of the problems in the RAT were intentionally unsolvable. Researchers expected that participants with high bullshit susceptibility would perform poorly on these tasks and have difficulty identifying solvable problems.

The second study included verbal analogy tasks and a memory task. Participants had to identify a word that had a similar relationship to a target word as the sample words had to each other (e.g. flock: goose = constellation: ____). [star]). Researchers also assessed participants’ beliefs about their cognitive abilities and perceived creative self-efficacy. In addition, participants rated a series of pseudo-profound sentences to gauge their level of bullshit susceptibility. Before beginning the cognitive tasks, participants were asked to predict their own performance.

In both studies, the researchers asked participants to rate a series of pseudo-profound sentences based on how profound they found them. In this way, the researchers assessed participants’ bullshit susceptibility. Before the researchers actually started the cognitive task, they presented the participants with the instructions for the task to be followed and asked them to rate how well they would do the task.

The results of the first study showed that participants who predicted greater success actually performed better. However, individuals with lower bullshit vulnerabilities were more accurate in predicting their performance on the Remote Associates test. Those with high bullshit vulnerabilities made predictions no better than random guesses. Additionally, participants with a higher bullshit susceptibility had difficulty identifying solvable problems.

On the Alternative Use task, participants with high bullshit susceptibility generated fewer ideas than participants with low susceptibility. However, they overestimated their own creativity compared to participants with low bullshit susceptibility, even though their actual creativity was lower on average.

The results of the second study showed that bullshit susceptibility did not affect performance on verbal analogy or recall tasks. However, participants with high bullshit susceptibility still had difficulty predicting their own success and tended to overestimate their results.

The researchers conclude that susceptibility to pseudo-profound bullshit is associated with lower metacognitive accuracy in creative problem-solving tasks. This suggests that individuals with high bullshit susceptibility may have delusional senses of achievement and tend to overestimate their abilities. This finding is consistent with previous research that “associates BS susceptibility with the perception of illusory patterns, a tendency to overuse knowledge, and a general lack of cognitive reflection.”

The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the psychological basis of self-assessments. However, there are also limitations that must be taken into account. Notably, all participants were Amazon MTurk employees and the effects were tested on a relatively limited set of tasks. Results for different populations and in more naturalistic settings may not produce the same results.

The article “Bullshit Receptivity, Problem Solving, and Metacognition: Just Bullshit, No Better Than Anybody Else” was authored by Tim Georgea and Marta K. Mielicki.

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