Do you have a good B.S. detector? You need one in our digital age.
The skill of spotting false information—rubbish, nonsense and, yes, fake news—is so important these days that scientists have begun serious research on it. They’re attempting to quantify when and why people spread it, who is susceptible to it, and how people can confront it.
This month in Atlanta, at the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, a group of psychologists and other scientists presented a symposium on their research. The title? “Bullshitting: Empirical and Experiential Examinations of a Pervasive Social Behavior.”
B.S. is a form of persuasion that aims to impress the listener while employing a blatant disregard for the truth, the researchers explained. It can involve language, statistics and charts and appears everywhere from politics to science. This definition closely adheres to the one presented by the philosopher and Princeton emeritus professor Harry Frankfurt in his now-classic 2005 book “On Bullshit.” Dr. Frankfurt explored how B.S. is different than lying because liars know the truth and push it aside while B.S.ers don’t necessarily care about the truth at all.
When people hear a false claim repeated even just once, they are more likely to let it override their prior knowledge on the subject and believe it, according to two studies published together in October 2015 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Psychologists say this is an example of the “illusory truth effect,” which shows that repeated statements are thought to be more true than statements heard for the first time.
“We think it happens because it is easier to process information the second time you hear it,” says Lisa Fazio, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, who was the lead author on the study. “It is also time-consuming and difficult to access our previous knowledge, so we often go with information that is close enough.”
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