Have you ever seen those segments on late-night TV, when comedians approach people on the street and ask them about things they should know about, but don’t? When Jay Leno did it, he called it Jaywalking. Jimmy Kimmel does a version, too. Typically, people do not admit that they don’t know the answer. Instead, they make something up.
That’s what social scientists call bullshitting. Seriously. That’s the term they use. They are following the lead of a philosopher and emeritus Princeton professor, Harry Frankfurt, who wrote a slim book called On Bullshit that unexpectedly became a best seller.
I spent the first two decades of my career studying lying. Bullshitting is different. Liars actually care about the truth – they are trying to direct you away from it. Bullshitters just don’t care about the truth. They don’t care about evidence. They don’t care about established knowledge. What they are saying may be true or it may not be. It doesn’t matter. Bullshitters are just bullshitting.
Not many of us get stopped in the street by Jimmy Kimmel, but we all have had the experience of being expected to know something when we don’t. Maybe it’s just a casual conversation at an informal social event about another person, or a more serious discussion of current events. If you think you are supposed to have an opinion when you really know absolutely nothing, you will probably say something. You will bullshit.
Social scientists are just starting to test Professor Frankfurt’s ideas about bullshitting. In a 2018 article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Wake Forest University professor John Petrocelli tried to test some of the conditions under which people might be tempted to bullshit.
He thought that people would be especially likely to bullshit if they felt obligated to provide an opinion when they actually did not know what they were talking about. He also predicted that people would be less likely to bullshit if they might get called on it.
First Study: What do you know and what does the other person know?
Study 1: How it was done
In the first study, participants learned some information about a person they would later discuss (Jim) or some other person (Tom). For example, they were told things like, Jim has a great need to be liked and admired by other people. Then they were told that Jim was running for City Council and had a strong lead, then pulled out of the race. Why did they think that happened? They were asked to list their thoughts about that.
Half of the participants were told that they did not have to list any of their thoughts if they did not want to. The others were not given that escape hatch.
Additionally, in each condition, half of the participants were told that the accuracy of their reasons would be evaluated by someone who knows Jim well, and the others were told that they would be evaluated by someone who does not know Jim at all.
To figure out if the participants were bullshitting, the experimenters showed them each of the reasons they listed, and asked for each one: “To what degree would you say you were truly concerned with genuine evidence and/or established knowledge?” The less they cared about the truth, the more they were scored as bullshitting. (The word “bullshitting” was never used with the participants.)
Study 1: Findings
#1 The less people know, the more they bullshit. The participants in the study who learned nothing about Jim (they were only told about Tom), and then were asked why they thought Jim left the race, did more bullshitting than the people who had learned about Jim.
#2 When people feel obligated to have an opinion, they bullshit more. The participants who were told they did not have to list their thoughts if they did not want to were less likely to bullshit than the ones who felt obligated to say why they thought Jim dropped out of the race for City Council.
#3 When people think they might get called on their bullshit, they are less likely to try it. When participants expected the accuracy of their reasons to be judged by someone who knew Jim, they engaged in less bullshitting than when they expected their reasons to be evaluated by someone who did not know Jim. Whether the evaluator knew Jim mattered a lot more when participants did not feel obligated to list their thoughts than when they thought they had to generate some reasons.
Second study: What if you have to justify your opinions?
Professor Petrocelli thought that people would be less likely to bullshit if they thought they would have to justify their opinions, especially to someone who does not agree with them.
Study 2: How it was done
Participants in the second study were asked to use rating scales to indicate their attitudes toward three issues: affirmative action quotas, a nuclear weapons freeze, and capital punishment. Then they were asked to list their thoughts about each of the issues.
In one condition, the participants never expected to have to justify their opinions. They were just asked to list their thoughts completely honestly.
In the other three conditions, they were told that in the next part of the study, they would have to justify their opinions to a sociology professor who was an expert on those issues. They were going to be held accountable.
In one of the accountability conditions, the participants were led to believe that the professor mostly agreed with them about their opinions. In another, they were led to believe that the professor mostly disagreed with them. In the final condition, they were not told anything about the professor’s opinions.
Bullshitting was measured the same way as in the first study. Participants were shown the thoughts they listed for each of the three issues, and asked to indicate for each, “to what degree would you say you were truly concerned with genuine evidence and/or established knowledge?”
Study 2: Findings
#4 People who do not expect to have to justify their opinions do a lot of bullshitting. The participants who did not expect to be held accountable did a lot of bullshitting.
#5 People talking to people who agree with them do a lot of bullshitting. The participants who expected the sociology professor to agree with them engaged in just as much bullshit as the participants who did not expect anyone to evaluate what they said.
#6 When people don’t know if the other person agrees with them, they do less than an average amount of bullshitting.
#7 When people know that the other person disagrees with them, they do a lot less bullshitting. The lowest level of bullshitting occurred when participants knew that their opinions would be evaluated by someone who disagreed with them.
[Obviously, this is a digression from my usual topic of living single. To read more of my writings about single life, organized by topic, see “What we really know about single life.” Many of the articles are from this Single-at-Heart blog.]