No word of a lie: scientists rate the world’s biggest peddlers of bull | Science
New research suggests boys are bigger liars than girls, and privileged children blag more than underprivileged ones. The American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt opens his bestselling treatise, On Bullshit , with a heartfelt lament on the sheer quantity around. “There is so much bullshit,” the Princeton scholar wrote in 2005, before conceding that we are all to blame.
In new research, scientists claim to have identified the most common practitioners of the ignoble art. Their study of 40,000 teenagers reveals that boys; those from privileged backgrounds; and North Americans in particular, top the charts as the worst offenders.
The Scots and the Northern Irish are the least likely to indulge, with the English ranking mid-table, according to the study of 15-year-olds from Anglophone regions, including the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland.
“Everyone knows a bullshitter but there’s been very little work done on them,” said John Jerrim , who led the latest study at UCL’s Institute of Education. “Who bullshits, and the psychological traits they share, are important questions to answer.”
With his UCL colleague, Nikki Shure , and Phil Parker , a psychologist at the Australian Catholic University, Jerrim analysed data gathered by the OECD to assess how well 15-year-olds around the globe have mastered key academic subjects.
For one of the questions, the teenagers must rate how familiar they are with 16 mathematical concepts ranging from polygons and vectors to quadratic functions and congruent figures. Hidden among the bona fide terms are three fakes: proper numbers, subjective scaling and declarative functions.
Jerrim took the students’ responses to the three fake concepts to draw up a “bullshit scale”, which he then used to compare different groups, such as boys and girls, high and low socioeconomic status, and the regions where people lived.
“Boys are bigger bullshitters than girls, children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds tend to bullshit more than those from lower ones, and North Americans bullshit the most,” Jerrim said. Those who ranked highest on the scale tended to see themselves as more self-confident, more persevering, and more popular at school, than those further down the scale.
The scientists don’t know why the differences occur, but they speculate that culture plays a role. “You can think about the positivity of North Americans and the supposedly dour nature of the Scots,” said Jerrim. Within a country, boys, and children from more advantaged backgrounds, may fear admitting ignorance, he said, or feel more confident that they will get away with “over-claiming”.
The research builds on a limited body of work that ranges from a collection of essays published in 1983 on The Prevalence of Humbug to recent tomes on the post-truth era . Along the way, academics have devised a Bullshit Receptivity scale , which showed that believers in the supernatural may be more receptive to bullshit, and proposed an “ease of passing bullshit hypothesis” , which posits that people are more likely to commit the offence when they believe they can get away with it.
“Some may do it more than others, but we all bullshit,” said John Petrocelli , a psychologist at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, who was not involved in the study. “People are social animals and we desire feelings of connection, belonging, and inclusion, so we try to participate when it is critical to build and maintain these relationships,” he said. “Such situations sometimes require us to talk about things we really know nothing about, and what comes out is bullshit.”
He added: “I truly believe it is critical to better understand bullshitting behaviour before we can more competently detect and dispose of bullshit.”
Jerrim said a major question is whether, and when, the art is beneficial. “Everyone gets a question in a job interview that they cannot answer. If you’re an effective bullshitter, it might help you get your foot in the door,” he said. “It might also help with academic grant proposals.”
Topics Science Young people Children Psychology Research Canada Northern Ireland