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Monday, July 5, 2021

Bullshit Ability as an Honest Signal of Intelligence

 By this standard, maybe Trump really is a “stable genius”

   Martin Harry TurpinMane Kara-YakoubianAlexander C. Walker

Navigating social systems efficiently is critical to our species. Humans appear endowed with a cognitive system that has formed to meet the unique challenges that emerge for highly social species. Bullshitting, communication characterised by an intent to be convincing or impressive without concern for truth, is ubiquitous within human societies. 

Across two studies (N = 1,017), we assess participants’ ability to produce satisfying and seemingly accurate bullshit as an honest signal of their intelligence. 

We find that bullshit ability is associated with an individual’s intelligence and individuals capable of producing more satisfying bullshit are judged by second-hand observers to be more intelligent. 

We interpret these results as adding evidence for intelligence being geared towards the navigation of social systems. 

The ability to produce satisfying bullshit may serve to assist individuals in negotiating their social world, both as an energetically efficient strategy for impressing others and as an honest signal of intelligence.

 [The Bullshitter]…is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Harry G. Frankfurt (2009)

Human intelligence has been a long-standing mystery to psychologists: In particular, why humans differ so greatly in their intelligence compared not only to distantly related animals, but our closest primate cousins. 

Large brains are energetically expensive (Cunnane et al., 1993Raichle & Gusnard, 2002) and necessitate that human children require inordinate levels of post-partum investment from caretakers (Rosenberg & Trevathan, 2002). 

Nevertheless, human brains have continued to increase in size over our evolutionary history until only recently (Beals et al., 1984Bednarik, 2014). It remains a puzzle to explain why humans continue to support the steep investment of resources that comes with maintaining a large and powerful brain, with leading theories suggesting that the cognitive, social and cultural advantages afforded by such large brains outweigh the costs (Seyfarth & Cheney, 2002). 

Classically, intelligence has often been considered mostly—or sometimes solely—for its value in manipulating and understanding the physical world (Humphrey, 1976), the environment for an organism being a series of cognitive puzzles which intelligence assists them in completing. 

More recent developments have expanded on this classical understanding through acknowledging that the complexities of an organism’s social life may place just as high of a demand on an organism’s intelligence as the complexities of its physical life (if not more; Byrne, 1996Byrne & Whiten, 1990Whiten, 2018). 

Far removed from the relatively sterile cognitive puzzles with which we now test and study intelligence, there is reason to believe that the origin of intelligence is best understood for its social uses (Gavrilets & Vose, 2006Geher & Miller, 2007; McNally, Brown, & Jackson, 2012). It is this perspective that grounds the current work.

Several theories have been forwarded to explain the high level of intelligence observed in humans. Some of the most promising among these theories have examined intelligence for its value in assisting us in navigating the complex social systems that characterize our species. 

Intelligence in the social world is theorized to have been formed primarily in response to three pressures. The first is the need to accurately signal intelligence in order to demonstrate genetic quality and fitness to potential mates (McKeown, 2013Miller, 2000Miller & Todd, 1998). 

The second, a pressure to manipulate, deceive, or influence others through the application of such social intelligence (Byrne, 1996Byrne & Whiten, 1990Handel, 1982Sharma et al., 2013Whiten, 2018). 

Third, the pressure to accurately maintain and manipulate mental models of complex social networks and interactions, as well as being able to simulate the mental states of others (Bjorklund & Kipp, 2002Roth & Dicke, 2005Stone, 2006). 

A cartoonish description of the hypothetical person who exemplifies all of these traits in the extreme would be one who shows off their intelligence whenever possible, tells lies when it is advantageous to do so, and is capable of keeping track of all the lies they have told.

Possessing a high level of intelligence allows humans to meet the intense demands placed on them by complex social systems. Beyond the Machiavellian value of social savvy, evidence suggests that large brains and their corresponding cognitive advantages may have been selected for as a result of their sexual appeal (Crow, 1993McKeown, 2013Miller, 2000Miller & Todd, 1998Schillaci, 2006). 

In line with signaling accounts, charisma in the form of humor and leadership abilities has been argued to function as an honest signal of desirable qualities, including cognitive ability (Greengross & Miller, 2011Grabo et al., 2017). 

In biology, an “honest signal” is one that conveys accurate information about an unobservable trait to another organism. For example, a brightly colored frog that is poisonous honestly signals its toxicity to predators; it looks dangerous, because it is. 

In contrast, a dishonest signal is an attempt to mislead another organism into believing that the signaler possesses a trait which it does not. For example, a harmless insect may possess the same coloration as a harmful wasp, falsely signaling that it is just as dangerous as a wasp in order to avoid predation; it looks dangerous, but it is not. 

In the context of sexual signaling in humans, a person of high intelligence who is able to communicate this to others is giving an honest signal that they possess this desirable trait. In this case, the “honesty” of a signal is independent of the truth content of the specific communication used to signal. For example, a smooth and intelligent liar may give the impression that they are intelligent even while saying nothing true.

The ability to produce satisfying bullshit, with its emphasis on impressing others without regard for truth or meaning (Frankfurt, 2009Pennycook et al., 2015), may represent an energetically inexpensive strategy for both signaling one’s intelligence, and deceiving others to one’s advantage. 

Indeed, past work provides initial evidence for this claim, demonstrating that indiscriminately attaching meaningless pseudo-profound bullshit titles to artworks increases their perceived profundity (Turpin et al., 2019). 

On this basis, it has been hypothesized that bullshit can be used to gain a competitive advantage in any domain of human competition where the criteria for determining who succeeds and fails at least partially relies on impressing others. In this way, bullshit may serve as an honest signal of a person’s intelligence (and therefore their fitness), even though the specific content of the bullshit itself may be false.

A growing body of literature has investigated peoples’ receptivity to bullshit, specifically computer-generated pseudo-profound bullshit consisting of random arrangements of superficially impressive words in a way that maintains syntactic structure (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”; Pennycook et al., 2015Pennycook & Rand, 2019Walker et al., 2019). 

Other work has begun to examine the frequency of bullshit production (Littrell et al, 2020; 2021), including investigation of the conditions under which people are most likely to produce bullshit (Petrocelli, 2018). Yet, minimal work has assessed how bullshit can be used to navigate social systems (McCarthy et al., 2020Turpin et al., 2019). 

For example, a person who is capable of producing good bullshit may be perceived as especially charming, convincing, or competent as long as their deception is left undiscovered. Relatedly, styles of bullshitting that allow one to avoid awkward or uncomfortable social situations may go far in fostering social harmony (Littrell et al., 2020). 

This type of bullshitting (i.e., evasive bullshitting) could be employed to avoid lying, while replacing the direct response with a less relevant truth (Carson, 2016Littrell et al., 2020). 

For example, a friend gifts you a sweater that you find hideous, but when asked how you like it, you respond with “thank you, this is very thoughtful of you!” 

Given the potential usefulness of bullshit as a method for navigating social systems, and with evidence that human intelligence may be set up largely for navigating the social world, an open question is whether bullshit ability as a behavioral feature reveals something about one’s relative intelligence. 

If our brains have evolved for the purpose of manipulating information about social relationships (e.g., using tactical deception; Dunbar, 1998), then it is plausible that intelligent people will produce bullshit that is of higher quality, as a means of efficiently navigating their social surroundings.

The current work investigates the role which bullshit ability plays in signaling intelligence. We assess both how the quality of bullshit reveals the true intelligence of bullshit producers as well as how bullshit quality is received as a signal of intelligence by observers. 

To examine these questions, we had a sample of participants attempt to explain fictional concepts in a way that appeared satisfying and accurate (i.e., with bullshit), while other samples judged the quality of these explanations and the intelligence of their creators. 

We hypothesized that bullshit would behave as an honest signal of one’s intelligence such that those able to create the most satisfying and seemingly accurate bullshit would also score higher on tests of cognitive ability. Furthermore, we predicted that those judged as producing high quality bullshit would also be perceived as more intelligent. 

Therefore, we expected bullshit ability to relate positively with measures of cognitive ability as well as perceptions of intelligence.