The Business Times

No bull, political speech is nonsense because it works

Published Thu, Dec 10, 2015 · 09:50 PM
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DO you think that this is a profound statement? "Intention and attention are mystery's manifestation." What about this one? "Hidden meanings transform unseen beauty." Both statements are, of course, bullshit, understood in a particular sense: not a lie, but a kind of verbal smokescreen, designed to suggest depth and insight but actually vague, vacuous or meaningless. As we will see, an understanding of pretentious-sounding gibberish and its frequent power tells us something important about contemporary politics. But we need a little social science first.

Gordon Pennycook, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, recently led a team of researchers in an investigation of how people react to "pseudo-profound" BS. As an initial test, they presented 280 undergraduates with 10 sentences that consisted - like the two sentences above - of vague, randomly chosen buzzwords.

The researchers asked students to use a 5-point scale to rate the profoundness of each statement, defined as "of deep meaning" (which was, of course, entirely absent from all of them). On the scale, 1 meant "not profound at all", 2 meant "somewhat profound", 3 meant "fairly profound", 4 meant "definitely profound", and 5 meant "very profound". The average rating was 2.6, meaning that most people agreed that randomly chosen buzzwords were closest to "fairly profound". In a follow-up study, some people were even willing to say that completely vacuous statements - such as "Most people enjoy at least some sort of music" - were at least somewhat profound.

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