A Load Of BS: People Who Frequently Mislead Others Are More Likely To Be Fooled Themselves

People who try and impress others with frequently misleading exaggerations and distortions are more likely to be impressed themselves by similar kinds of misinformation, and less able to identify it as BS. Image Credit: Patrick Daxenbichler/Shutterstock.com

 "You can't bullshit a bullshitter" seems unlikely to be true as new findings show that those full of BS are actually more likely to fall for such nonsense themselves.

The study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology shows that people who try and impress others with frequently misleading exaggerations and distortions are more likely to be impressed themselves by similar kinds of misinformation, and less able to identify it as BS.  

“It probably seems intuitive to believe that you can’t bullshit a bullshitter, but our research suggests that this isn’t actually the case,” said Shane Littrell, lead author of the paper and cognitive psychology PhD candidate at Waterloo, in a statement. “In fact, it appears that the biggest purveyors of persuasive bullshit are ironically some of the ones most likely to fall for it.”

In three studies with over 800 participants from the US and Canada, the researchers used a self-reported survey to assess the relationship between those who reported they frequently bullshit others, and their own personal rating of how profound, truthful, or accurate they found pseudo-profound and pseudo-scientific statements and fake news headlines.

The researchers defined "bullshit" as information designed to impress, persuade, or otherwise mislead other people without concern for the truth. They also defined two types of bullshit: persuasive and evasive. Persuasive BS uses exaggerations or embellishments to fit in or impress others, while evasive BS involves giving vague or irrelevant information to avoid scenarios where being blunt may hurt someone's feelings or cause harm to their own reputation.   

The participants' cognitive ability, metacognitive insight, intellectual overconfidence, and reflective thinking were also assessed in the study to understand which attributes may contribute to their ratings of misinformation presented to them.

“We found that the more frequently someone engages in persuasive bullshitting, the more likely they are to be duped by various types of misleading information regardless of their cognitive ability, engagement in reflective thinking, or metacognitive skills,” Littrell said. “Persuasive BSers seem to mistake superficial profoundness for actual profoundness. So, if something simply sounds profound, truthful, or accurate to them that means it really is. But evasive bullshitters were much better at making this distinction."

The researchers hope to better understand the process that underpins the spread of misinformation, which in recent times has become a major problem, especially online on social media platforms. More research will need to be carried out to solidify the link of a bullshitter being easily bullshitted, as the findings here are self-reported, which can be a limitation, and previous studies have indicated that those who frequently engage in deception are actually better at detecting it. However, this work provides early indications that those who regularly mislead others are often unable to distinguish fact from fiction themselves. 

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