People who see meaningful patterns where none exist are more likely to buy into hollow statements, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo.

In the study, Waterloo researchers found people with a tendency to uncritically see patterns, where they were absent, were more likely to endorse statements that sound profound but are actually meaningless.

“While many people may believe that they can reliably detect and resist bullshit, empirical findings suggest otherwise," says Alexander Walker, lead author of the paper and a PhD candidate in psychology at Waterloo. “The proliferation of online media has enabled information to spread exponentially, exposing more people to more false or dubious information than ever before.”  

The researchers define bullshit as a claim that is disinterested in truth or validation. Furthermore, they define bullshit receptivity as a tendency that requires only the vague perception that there is something meaningful being communicated by the bullshitter. 

In a series of three experiments conducted with 627 participants, the researchers examined the relationship between participants' endorsements of illusory patterns and their profundity ratings given to pseudo-profound bullshit statements and motivational quotations.

Illusory pattern perception occurs when a person makes connections between unrelated stimuli.

Previous studies report that peoples’ susceptibility to what researchers call pseudo-profound bullshit relates to various other important real-world beliefs, such as those about political ideologies and candidates.

"Across several different pattern-finding tasks, we found a strong relationship between seeing patterns where there are none and endorsing profoundness in pseudo-profound bullshit,” says Martin Harry Turpin, co-author and also a psychology PhD candidate at Waterloo. “This might mean that bullshit works when people are too uncritical in connecting random, fancy-sounding tidbits to events in their own lives, perhaps not unlike how horoscopes work.”

The new study builds on previous work that identified two tendencies among people who believed bullshit, those who ascribe to profound meaning in the mundane and those who didn’t think analytically.

Along with Walker and Turpin, the paper— Finding meaning in the clouds: Illusory pattern perception predicts receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit—was co-authored by Waterloo psychology professors Jennifer A. Stolz, Jonathan A. Fugelsang, and Derek J. Koehler. It was published in Judgment and Decision Making.

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