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Turns Out Bullshitters Can Be Bullshitted

As researchers are discovering, the more likely you are to believe in bullshit, the more likely you are to spread it

I’m extremely gullible and easily persuaded. I know without a doubt that if I got put into one of those timeshare seminars, I’d leave with a timeshare. A friend of mine used to regularly make jokes on social media about how Bernie Sanders was a history teacher at my high school, and I thought it was true for years. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to be dumbfounded by how gullible we can be as a culture. Why, for example, do so many people fall prey to obvious stunts, like that recently circulated viral clip where a woman is allegedly “breastfeeding” a stuffed cat?

Apparently, according to recent research, it’s because we’re all just a bunch of big bullshitters. And while the old adage says a bullshitter can’t be bullshitted, it turns out they absolutely can — in fact, part of the reason why so many people are susceptible to bullshit is because they think, as bullshitters themselves, that they’re immune. 

In a study published in the The British Journal of Social Psychology, researchers at Columbia University found that there’s a correlation between the frequency of spewing lies and misinformation and the likelihood of believing similar content oneself. The researchers did three rounds of studies involving 826 participants in the U.S. and Canada, measuring both “receptivity to falling for bullshit and the propensity to produce it” by having participants examine fake news, faux-profound content and misleading scientific claims while also measuring their cognitive abilities. And yes, the actual study uses the term “bullshit.” 

But what distinguishes this study is the fact that researchers further clarified that there are two types of “bullshitting.” The first is a form used to impress or persuade others; the other is used to evade the truth for the sake of managing one’s reputation. The study found that those who practice the first form of bullshitting were more susceptible to believing bullshit themselves than those who don’t bullshit, or those who only bullshit for evasive purposes. This is true even when factoring for intelligence and analytic-thinking skills. 

There are, however, a few limits to the study. The first, as study author Shane Littrell told PsyPost, is that they only knew someone was a bullshitter because that person was bad at it or identified themselves as such. Expert-level bullshitters who can bullshit undetected may not have the same problem. Meanwhile, the study only involved English speakers in North America. In other words, this phenomenon may not exist elsewhere in the world. 

Surprisingly, this isn’t the first study to analyze bullshitting. In fact, it appears to be a totally legitimate psychological topic. Just earlier this year, for instance, researchers at the University of Waterloo conducted a similar study on “bullshit receptivity” among bullshitters, drawing similar conclusions. Complicating matters, however, is a study from June that indicated that bullshitting is a sign of intelligence. (For what it’s worth, the U.S. and Canada have also been deemed the most bullshitting countries of all.) 

None of this, though, suggests that people who tend to believe lies or are easily persuaded are themselves bullshitters. I’m not a good liar at all — I’m just dumb enough to be convinced of stuff. But I’ve managed to make it this far by knowing that I’m gullible. I like to think that’s a loophole in all this. I mean, at least I didn’t fall for that cat video.