Politically conservative people tend to be slightly more receptive to political bullshit, according to new research that looked at participants from three different countries. The study, which looked at “policy statements that are intended to persuade voters but are so vague and broad as to be virtually meaningless,” was published in Journal of Social and Political Psychology.
Vukasin Gligoric, the study’s corresponding author and a doctoral candidate at the University of Amsterdam, said he was motivated to investigate the issue of political bullshit for two main reasons.
“One is that I’ve been interested in politics and political psychology for quite some time,” he explained. “Second, I was inspired by the very relevant work of Gordon Pennycook and colleagues on pseudo-deep nonsense (sentences that sound deep because they use complicated words, but actually make no sense). Specifically, it was a paper that explored whether neoliberals are more receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit. In the debate, they give a possible example of bullshit in politics, where politicians might say something like “I believe in America!” Then I realized – oh my God, there is very continues here.”
Given how often politicians use grandiose phrases that have no real meaning, Gligoric was surprised to find that there was little research on this. “To me, the disparity between how widespread the phenomenon is and the lack of investigation is shocking,” he said.
The new findings are based on research conducted with 179 US, 185 Serbian and 170 Dutch participants.
Consistent with previous research on bullshit receptivity, the researchers presented participants with a list of statements that included both pseudo-profound bullshit (“Good health conveys reality to subtle creativity”) and meaningful sentences (“A river cuts a rock, not because of its strength but because of its persistence”). Participants were asked to rate how “deep” they thought each statement was.
To measure receptivity to politician bullshit, the researchers then had participants read about hypothetical political programs that had been proposed during a presidential election in the fictitious country of Gonfel.
Three of the programs were “meaningless and empty.” For example, “Our political program is based on the unity of our people in Gonfel. We promise that the government we form will work for its people and not against its people, as has been the case for the past few decades. Our greatest effort will be to return dignity to our country so that we do not disgrace our ancestors. Pride and dignity are our values and I am committed to fighting for them.”
Three substantive political programs outlining specific policies were also included. For example, one program described a “plan to reduce university tuition by 20% and provide affordable medical services to citizens with lower-than-average incomes.” The researchers asked participants to rate how much they would support each program and how likely they would vote for the candidate who proposed it.
Finally, the researchers asked participants to rate how persuasive five political slogans were, and then to rate how persuasive 15 political statements were. The political statements included a mixture of nonsense (“Leading the people politically means always fighting for them”) and factual statements (“The president and the prime minister have important political functions”).
In all three samples, Gligorić and his colleagues found that participants were more receptive pseudo-deep bullshit tended to be more receptive politician bullshit too. The findings provide evidence that “there is such a thing as bullshit in politics (eg, in speeches, slogans),” Gligorić told PsyPost. “And by ‘nonsense’ we don’t mean nonsense or lies: we mean saying something so abstract that you can’t agree or disagree with it – it’s just meaningless. And we give many examples in the newspaper itself.”
The researchers also found that participants who endorsed statements such as “The free market economic system is a fair system” and “The free market economic system is an efficient system” were more receptive to political bullshit. Additionally, endorsement of political bullshit was associated with a greater likelihood of voting for conservative candidates.
“It seems that people on the right, especially neoliberals, are more likely to accept it,” Gligoric said. “However, the effect is not very strong and we need more research on this. An important note about the study is that we investigated how receptive people are – we don’t know which side of the political spectrum uses it the most. But I’d say everybody uses it – it’s just a structural feature of politics.”
Future research may help devise a simpler measure of receptivity to political bullshit. “Right now, we have a lot of measures that we use to explore how receptive someone is to political bullshit,” Gligoric explained. “I think the best way forward is to find a measure of how much politicians use political bullshit. If we were to develop such a measure, there would be many things to investigate: what is the prevalence of an average political discourse, when politicians turn to it, which politicians rely on it most often, and so on.’
The study, “Political receptivity and its correlates: A cross-country validation of the concept,” was authored by Vukašin Gligorić, Allard Feddes and Bertjan Doosje.