A series of two studies has found that individuals who tend to perceive meaningless statements as profound (“bullshit receptivity”) were less accurate in their predictions of performance on creative problem-solving tasks. They were also had difficulty distinguishing between solvable and unsolvable problems. The research was published in Thinking & Reasoning.
Some years ago, scientists discovered that some people have a tendency to perceive meaningless statements as highly profound or significant. This tendency has been named “bullshit receptivity.” Researchers investigating this phenomenon have used an algorithm to construct sentences that are grammatically correct but completely nonsensical (e.g., “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty” and “Epistemological transformations herald a quantum leap towards a synergetic manifestation of multidimensional consciousness”.)
Such sentences are called pseudo-profound sentences. In studies, some people showed a tendency to interpret sentences such as these as having a profound meaning.
Further research revealed that individuals with pronounced bullshit receptivity tend to be less analytic 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 lower on various assessments of cognitive abilities. They are also prone to perceive meaningful patterns where none exist. Training in critical thinking was shown to reduce bullshit receptivity.
Study authors Tim Georgea and Mart K. Mielicki wanted to explore whether bullshit receptivity is associated with how accurate individuals are in judging their ability to solve problems. They reasoned that individuals who tend to perceive patterns where none exist might also think of themselves as creative and good judges in the area of creative problem-solving. They devised two studies. Both studies were conducted on groups of 100 Amazon MTurk workers.
In the first study, the researchers used two types of tests: a remote associates test (RAT) and an alternate uses task (AUT). The RAT required finding the word that connects other words in the task, while the AUT involved finding new ways to use a specific item. Both tests are considered creative tasks. Some of the problems in the RAT were intentionally unsolvable. The researchers expected that participants with high bullshit receptivity would perform poorly on these tasks and struggle to identify solvable problems.
The second study included verbal analogy tasks and a recall task. Participants had to identify a word that had a similar relationship to a target word as the example words had among themselves (e.g. flock : goose = constellation : ____ [star]). The researchers also assessed participants’ beliefs about their cognitive abilities and their perceived creative self-efficacy. Additionally, participants rated a set of pseudo-profound sentences to measure their level of bullshit receptivity. Before starting the cognitive tasks, participants were asked to predict their own performance.
In both studies, the researchers asked participants to rate a set of pseudo-profound sentences for how profound they find them to be. In this way, the researchers assessed the bullshit receptivity of the participants. Before actually starting to work on the cognitive tasks, the researchers presented the instructions for the task that was to follow to the participants and asked them to assess how good they would be at solving that task.
The results of the first study showed that participants who predicted higher success actually performed better. However, individuals with lower bullshit receptivity were more accurate in predicting their performance on the remote associates test. Those with high bullshit receptivity made predictions that were no better than random guessing. Furthermore, participants with higher bullshit receptivity struggled to identify solvable problems.
In the alternate uses task, participants with high bullshit receptivity generated fewer ideas compared to those with low receptivity. However, they overestimated their own creativity compared to participants with low bullshit receptivity, even though their actual creativity was lower on average.
The results of the second study showed that bullshit receptivity did not affect performance on verbal analogy tasks or recall tasks. However, participants with high bullshit receptivity still had difficulty predicting their own success and tended to overestimate their results.
The researchers conclude that receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit is associated with lower metacognitive accuracy in creative problem-solving tasks. It suggests that individuals with high bullshit receptivity may have illusory feelings of success and a tendency to overestimate their abilities. This finding aligns with previous research “linking BS receptivity to illusory pattern perception, a tendency to overclaim knowledge, and a general lack of cognitive reflection.”
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of psychological underpinnings of self-assessments. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, all the participants were Amazon MTurk workers and the effects were tested on a relatively limited series of tasks. Results on different populations and in more naturalistic settings might not yield equal results.
The paper “Bullshit receptivity, problem solving, and metacognition: simply the BS, not better than all the rest” was authored by Tim Georgea and Marta K. Mielicki.