Dec 1, 2015

Why Do Some People Find Deepak Chopra Quotes Deep And Not Dung?

November 30, 2015

In what may well be the first-ever paper to evaluate susceptibility to pseudo-profound BS, Gordon Pennycook and colleagues have found that people who are more susceptible to BS score lower for verbal and fluid intelligence, are more prone to “conspiratorial ideation,” and more likely to “endorse complementary and alternative medicine.” Their paper, “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” was published in November in the journal Judgment and Decision Making.

To reach their conclusions, the authors conducted a series of studies in which they presented participants with sentences that had recognizable English syntax but were simply a series of randomly organized buzzwords. Examples of these pseudo-profound statements include “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty,” a totally meaningless sentence that appears to be profound because it uses buzzwords like “hidden” and “transforms” and “abstract” and “beauty.” Indeed, rearranging the same words can yield a similarly pseudo-profound statement: “Abstract meaning transforms unparalleled hidden beauty.”

For real-world examples, the authors turned to Twitter, which they describe as “particularly conducive to the promulgation” of BS because of its 140-character limit. As their example of choice, they sought out Deepak Chopra’s tweets, for reasons that should be obvious. If they aren’t, here’s a sample Chopra tweet: “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.” What they left out of the quote is the hashtag Chopra added: “#cosmicconsciousness.” Reactions to the tweet were mixed.

To determine factors that might make someone susceptible to reading that Chopra tweet and finding meaning in it, Pennycook and co-authors evaluated participants’ analytical thinking, tendency to confuse one knowledge category with another, such as viewing the material as spiritual, and tendency to hold implausible beliefs. In a series of studies, the authors presented participants with randomly assembled pseudo-profound statements, Deepak Chopra tweets, and tests of cognitive and reasoning ability along with several scales to evaluate factors such as personal beliefs and a tendency to conspiracy ideation.

In general, the profoundness ratings that participants gave the BS statements were very similar to those they gave to Chopra’s tweets.

In addition to looking into what makes people susceptible to finding BS statements profound, the authors also looked at what factors make others have hypersensitive BS detectors, or the cognitive measures that “inoculate against bullshit,” as they put it. To measure this feature, they looked at factors associated with those who rated legitimate quotations as far more profound than pseudo-profound BS. Those folks were more likely to have an analytic cognitive style and be skeptical about paranormal phenomena.

The authors also draw an interesting distinction between types of open-mindedness, one that might explain why people who are on the same side of the aisle politically can have very different responses to pseudoscience. Pennycook and colleagues contrast reflexive or uncritical open-mindedness, in which a person is accepting of information but doesn’t pause to evaluate inherent conflicts or other features, and reflective or active open-mindedness, in which a person seeks information for the purpose of critical thinking.

I’m sure that much of the coverage of this publication will focus on the inherent hilarity of an entire academic paper devoted to assessing susceptibility to bullshit and the use of a potty word in a study report that includes priceless sentences such as, “Bullshit comes in many forms and we have focused on only one type,” and “Bullshit is not only common; it is popular. Chopra is, of course, just one example among many,” and “This is not to say that everything Deepak Chopra has written is bullshit.” It must have been fun to write and fascinating to do.

But what emerges from this seemingly tongue-in-cheek research—the first author is pretty pleased at having used the word “bullshit” ~200 times in the paper—is something more, um, profound than might be expected. The emerging picture is that people have divergent psychological profiles that make them more or less likely to believe in certain phenomena, buy into conspiracy theories, embrace the language and promises of alternative medicine over conventional medicine, and find meaning in a meaningless series of profound-sounding words.

These findings could very well be confirmation of what those who market certain products already know, that words that sound truthy, deep, and believable are far more compelling to their target audience than terms like “data” and “evidence.” But more profoundly (sorry), this kind of tendency also feeds into broadly resonating societal effects, such as the susceptibilities that led—and still lead—some people to chase false “cures” for everything from autism to cancer, to follow false prophets who promise them transformation and revelation of hidden beauty while giving them nothing, and to confuse categories of existence and believe that the material is magical. And that is deeply, deeply important to understand.

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