Mercifully, the body of academic literature examining bullshit is growing fast. Just last month, for example, researchers at University College London published a new paper about bullshitters, their motivations, and where they tend to congregate.
Nikki Shure, an economist at UCL and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells Inverse that their findings are all thanks to a special questionnaire at the back of an internationally administered math test. Thanks to this special questionnaire — which asked 40,000 students to assess their abilities in 16 math skills, 3 of them fake — we can now say definitively that North Americans are the biggest bullshitters in the English speaking world.
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This is not the first time serious scholars have taken up the question of what, exactly, bullshit describes and why the world seems to be so full of it. A few years ago, anthropologist David Graeber reinvigorated academic interest in bullshit, applying it to labor studies. In Graeber’s context, “bullshit jobs” describe the jobs people do that have no meaning and create little value, but we do them anyway because late capitalism demands it.
Other academics describe and study bullshit in a completely different context. These efforts date back to 1988, when the famous Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt published this essay called “On Bullshit.” In Frankfurt’s view, most forms of bullshit stem from a disregard for the truth, which he argues is distinct from lying. A liar knows the truth is bad; that’s why they lie. Bullshitters, by contrast, don’t care about the truth at all.
This is the kind of bullshitting that was the subject of the Shure study. In 2012, the Programme for International Student Assessment — a test taken by kids around the world, including 40,000 English-speaking students — featured a few extra questions as part of the questionnaire that students completed at the end of their test. It was all biographical stuff, like where they were from and what their parents did. But in addition to this biographical information, the questionnaire also asked the students to say how familiar they were with 16 mathematical concepts. Three of the concepts were completely fake. Bogus. Pure imagination.
“This is kind of one of those situations, where there’s not a clear reason why they would pretend to have knowledge of these fake concepts. There is this disregard for the truth,” Shure says. “They ‘know and understand’ these fake concepts? That’s obviously bullshitting.”
Shure says this data set was particularly unique because bullshitters usually have something to gain for their non-truthfulness. Other studies, she said, relied on assessments of over-familiarity with certain concepts or sometimes with popular culture. Shure says these studies may have been limited by still offering an incentive to bullshit in the form of social desirability.
“You don’t want to look stupid,” she points out.
Faced with this new, totally anonymous, totally stakeless evidence of bullshitting, Shure says her paper provides something like the first-ever taxonomy of bullshitters — at least, the first-ever taxonomy for bullshitting teens. In addition to some regional distinctions (North Americans bullshit the most; Scottish bullshit the least), there were also differences in terms of gender (It should surprise none of you to read that men bullshit more than women.) and socioeconomic status.
“People from wealthier backgrounds had a higher propensity to bullshit, as opposed to their poorer peers. Immigrants also score really high on the bullshit index compared to native, which I found somewhat surprising, but there may be some linguistic issue there,” she says.
This isn’t just a funny study (though if you’re going to actually read any of the papers I’ve ever written about in this newsletter, you could do a lot worse.) You might recall a strategy I wrote a few months ago about why terrible men often get promoted at work. In the story, leadership expert Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues that bad men often ascend to leadership positions because most people don’t know what makes a good leader, so when it’s time to choose one, we’re highly susceptible to their bullshit.
While Shure’s new study doesn’t look at how bullshitters fare in the labor market, her team’s data does align with Chamorro-Premuzic’s argument that terrible men get promotions because they’re more likely to bullshit their way to the top.
We now have solid data suggesting that young men, particularly wealthy young men, are more likely to claim skills they don’t have than virtually any other group.
It occurs to me, then, that in order to close the wage gap between men and women, we’ll have to find a way to stop women from paying an honesty tax via a lower paycheck.