Why People Believe Meaningless Bullsh*t

NY Mag:

Summarizing the results, Pennycook, et al., write that “[people] more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to … conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”

This makes some degree of intuitive sense — to the extent all these characteristics can be swept under the same umbrella, that umbrella would be marked “not very skeptical.” Those who don’t instinctively question the information presented to them might see a statement like “Each of us gives rise to existential bliss” — yes, I generated that one using wisdomofchopra.com — and think, Whoa, that’s pretty deep. Those who are more skeptical, on the other hand, are more likely to, well, call bullshit.

Where things get really complicated — and less lighthearted — is the question of how beliefs in pseudo-intellectual bullshit relate to beliefs in dangerous or misleading medical or scientific beliefs. It makes sense on its face that someone who believes in the wisdom of Chopra might also be more vulnerable to, say, a viral website propagating an unproven claim about using coconut oil to treat Alzheimer’s, but there’s just no way to know for sure without doing more research.

Pennycook said it’s unclear exactly how to get people to stop believing in pseudo-profound bullshit. “I usually emphasize the importance of critical thinking, but this isn’t a novel insight,” he said in an email. “We can’t do much to increase our intelligence, but we can make an effort to be more reflective about the information that we come across on a day-to-day basis. Naturally, given the sheer quantity of information that we come across nowadays, it might be necessary to be particularly diligent when it comes to things of particular import (e.g., that relate to health and well-being).”