Spreading BS Could Make You More Likely to Believe It, Study Suggests

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Key Takeaways

  • Research shows those who spread BS-style misinformation are themselves more prone to believing it.
  • There are two kinds of BS—persuasive and evasive, which could determine your susceptibility.

We all know people who BS their way through conversations and life in general. According to researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, such people may be more susceptible to a taste of their own medicine. 

“[We found] that people who often intentionally engage in misleading others (e.g., by BSing) are themselves ironically more susceptible to being unknowingly duped by misleading information,” Shane Littrell, lead researcher at the University of Waterloo, tells Verywell Mind.

Shane Littrell, University of Waterloo

[We found] that people who often intentionally engage in misleading others are themselves ironically more susceptible to being unknowingly duped by misleading information.

— Shane Littrell, University of Waterloo

And it doesn’t matter how smart or analytically minded a person is. If they are a big, persuasive BSer, they’re more at risk of falling for BS. Plus, they may not be aware that they’re more susceptible, adds Littrell.

“This inability to distinguish fact from fiction means that the amount of BS being spread by the BSer is potentially a lot more than they may realize,” he says.

What Is BS?

Merriam-Webster defines BS as “nonsense.” However, in psychological terms, Littrell says it has been defined as “information designed to impress, persuade, or otherwise mislead people that is often constructed without concern for truth.”

While it is a deliberate act, it is not the same as lying, says Joseph M. Pierre, MD, health sciences clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles.

Joseph M. Pierre, MD

A liar knows the truth, but makes statements intended to sell people on falsehoods. BSers, in contrast, aren’t concerned about what’s true or not, so much as they’re trying to appear as if they know what they’re talking about.

— Joseph M. Pierre, MD

Given this, BSers tend to deceive in situations where they are trying to manipulate how other people view them and/or are trying to manipulate their ideas. This is called “impression management,” says Littrell.

“But if BS is coming out of their mouths even when they’re not trying... then there’s a much higher chance that they will lose whatever strategic advantage that BSing provided, because fewer people will take them seriously,” he explains.

Types of BS

There are two kinds of BSing. In cases where BSing occurs, context matters.

Persuasive BSing

Persuasive BSing is an attempt to impress, persuade, or fit in with others by exaggerating, embellishing, or stretching the truth about one's knowledge, ideas, attitudes, skills, or competence.

For example, Littrell says, persuasive BSing “might be a CEO unleashing a bunch of impressive-sounding buzzwords and corporate jargon to a group of shareholders or board members to persuade them that the CEO’s plan is more awesome than it probably is or that the company’s future looks brighter than it probably really does (to a more objective outside observer).”

Evasive BSing

Evasive BSing is responding to inquiries by substituting evasive, non-relevant truths, rather than frankness in situations where direct answers might result in negative social outcomes.

An example of evasive BSing might involve a situation like the following, according to Littrell: “Your romantic partner/spouse gets a drastic and hideous new haircut and asks you if you like it. You don’t want to lie, but if you tell them your honest opinion it could hurt their feelings and result in you sleeping on the couch for the next week. So, you respond with, ‘you always look great to me, honey,’” he says. 

Evasive BSing seems to resemble the kind that politicians might engage in at press conferences or that scientists might fall back on during interviews where they’re under pressure to comment, notes Pierre.

“In that sense, it may not be designed to sound profound so much as it’s deliberately crafted as accessible if vague rhetoric used as a kind of social smokescreen, either to respond to a query with something speculative, cover for ignorance, or perhaps to avoid conceding that one might be wrong,” he explains.

Why BSing Matters in the Spread of Misinformation

In their research, Littrell and his team conducted a series of studies with over 800 participants from the U.S. and Canada. Based on a scale that measures “BSing,” participants' self-reported their engagement in both types of BSing, and how profound, truthful, or accurate they found pseudo-profound and pseudo-scientific statements and fake news headlines.

Participants also answered questions on a scale of “BS receptivity,” which measures cognitive ability, metacognitive insight, intellectual overconfidence, and reflective thinking.

The researchers found that higher scores on the first scale were correlated with higher scores on the second. They also found that people who are more susceptible to falling for BS generally scored lower on measures of analytic thinking skills and cognitive ability, and are more likely to solve problems faster and intuitively rather than more slowly and reflectively.

“These things apply to anyone who is more likely to fall for BS, and not just to the BSers who fall for BS,” says Littrell.

Additionally, more frequent persuasive BSers experience some metacognitive errors when they evaluate certain types of information. “So, if they encounter some impressive-sounding, buzzword-heavy BS, they seem to misinterpret the superficial cues of profoundness, truthfulness, or accuracy as signals of inherent profoundness, truthfulness, or accuracy,” Littrell says.

For example, he points out that they might encounter New Age or pseudo-scientific nonsense online that contains words like, “quantum interconnectedness” or “superpositional magnetonic field” and be impressed by the obscure phrases.

“But because these nonsensical phrases are simultaneously impressive and hard to understand, the person mistakes this as indicating that the information actually IS profound, truthful, or accurate. Basically, if it sounds true/smart, it is true/smart (at least to them),” he explains.

However, this processing doesn’t apply to evasive BSers, who are better at making the distinction. “We’re still not entirely sure why persuasive BSers are committing this metacognitive error, but we at least now know that that’s what seems to be happening,” says Littrell.

Due to the spread and acceptance of mis-information over the last few years, Pierre says research around why people produce and fall for it has become legitimate topics of research and validated constructs in psychology.

Joseph M. Pierre, MD

Although ‘BSing’ is obviously not a novel human behavior, it is a subject of considerable interest these days, especially in the ‘post-truth’ world that we now live in, where reliable information, misinformation, and deliberate disinformation often coexist side by side.

— Joseph M. Pierre, MD

Pierre adds that it is best not to connect the practice with specific types of people. “The reality is that we all have some propensity to BS and we all have some propensity for receptivity, with individual differences existing quantitatively rather than qualitatively,” says Pierre. “When it comes to BS, we also might use persuasive and evasive BS in varying degrees.”

As far as understanding the spread of misinformation at a granular level, he adds, that “requires that we have better understanding of the many different motivations for creating, spreading, and recirculating it.”

How to Spot a BSer

Pierre says some people are better at detecting BS than others. “Some of us can smell it from a mile away and some of us find it downright appealing. So, our ability to see a ‘red flag’ depends on our eyes or nose, so to speak,” he says.

While someone who is blatantly spreading falsehoods to deceive you might be easier to detect, Littrell’s research shows that although it, by definition, is always intentional, a person can unknowingly or unintentionally transmit BS to others, if they are conveying information that they believe is true, but is actually not.

This type of misinformation can be harder to detect since the person spreading it believes it themselves. “I’m not aware of research that shows how BS receptivity can be decreased, or that we can train people to recognize BS for what it is, but that’s certainly a subject worth exploring in future research,” says Pierre. 

Some agencies and social media platforms are working to stop the spread of misinformation regarding COVID-19. If you notice content online that you believe to be false or misleading, the World Health Organization lists where to report it here.

What This Means For You

As misinformation increases and it becomes harder to detect truth from fiction, understanding why and how some people spread and fall for BS can help make sense of it all.

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  1. Littrell S, Fugelsang J. ‘You can’t bullshit a bullshitter’ (or can you?): Bullshitting frequency predicts receptivity to various types of misleading information. Br J Soc Psychol. 2021:bjso.12447. doi:10.1111/bjso.12447