The existence of what’s colloquially known as “bullshit”—a combination of lies, exaggerations, and inaccuracies that makes it hard to figure out what the truth is—is familiar to all of us. Most of us have come across an individual so skilled in deploying it to advance their goals that we refer to them as “bullshit artists.
Even then, another seven years had to go by before other researchers expanded on Frankfurt’s theoretical framework, and empirical studies have only really picked up over the last several years. Now, a group of social scientists (John Jerrim, Phil Parker, and Nikki Shure) have done a massive study that polled 40,000 school students to find out who bullshits and why. The researchers use the phrases “bullshit” and “bullshitters” throughout, so we are, too.
As defined by the academic community, bullshit can be contrasted with lying by the fact that the people who use it are indifferent to the truth. While lies are often a strategic mix of truth and falsehoods deployed for a specific goal, bullshit is just a collection with a random accuracy meant to establish an impression. So how do you test for that?
The three authors of a new working paper on the subject designed a simple test for bullshit and managed to get it inserted into a survey that ensured they had a massive study audience. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (best known as the OECD) runs a Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that gives tests and surveys to students from its member countries. The results are a valuable cache of data both due to its detail—everything from demographics to test performance—and massive scope, with data available on tens of thousands of students.
Jerrim, Parker, and Shure acknowledge that PISA “has never been used to compare participants across countries in terms of their proclivity to bullshit” before, but they figured out how to do so. The 2012 test was focused on math and included a question about how familiar students were with 15 mathematical concepts. Thanks to our intrepid researchers, three of those concepts were completely nonexistent (proper numbers, subjunctive scaling, and declarative fractions). Anyone claiming they had mastered them was obviously bullshitting.
To limit possible confusion with real concepts, the researchers focused on English-speaking countries, as they pose fewer problems with language translations. This still left them with over 40,000 participants. Demographic information obtained during PISA include gender and socioeconomic status; the test scores provide a measure of actual mathematical achievement; and students were asked to self-rate things like their ability to solve problems, their perseverance when dealing with challenges, and their popularity at school.
Be wary of North Americans
Each country was given an overall bullshit score based on its take on the three fake subjects and controlled for things like actual mathematical achievement. Canada topped the list, followed closely by the United States. Australia and New Zealand followed, with England bringing up the back of the pack in terms of a tendency to bullshit. Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland all ended up with negative scores. Although there are undoubtedly bullshitters in these three countries, apparently math isn’t their preferred topic for exercising this artistry.
Data showed that the boys in all of the countries are more likely to claim they’ve mastered a nonexistent skill. The same held true for people with higher socioeconomic status, who invariably engaged in some bullshitting. People at the lower end of the economic scale, in contrast, had negative BS scores in all of the countries examined.
Things aren’t all bad for North Americans, though, as they’re remarkably egalitarian in their bullshit. Both the gap between genders and the gap between low and high socioeconomic status were smallest in the US and Canada. The US was also unique in that there was no significant gap between immigrants and native-born bullshitters (in other countries, immigrants were more likely to claim they knew the nonexistent math). England, Ireland, and Scotland had the largest gender gaps; Scotland and New Zealand the largest gap based on economic status; and the European countries all clustered together with larger differences between native populations and immigrants.
Across all countries, bullshitters were likely to have confidence in their own abilities. They were more likely to claim they could handle problem-solving challenges and rated their perseverance highly. Somewhat surprisingly, the students with higher bullshit scores were only marginally more likely to say they were more popular at school, though they were consistently more likely to say that things were going well there. Signs of teenage angst, like feeling lonely and not belonging, showed no correlation with tendency to bullshit.
Quantification doesn’t provide explanations
It’s remarkably easy to speculate about some of the factors seen here. The correlation between relative wealth and bullshit makes a tempting target, while the need for immigrants to bullshit a bit while finding their way in a new country would seem to make sense. Despite the vast scope of the data, however, most of these are impossible to test given the information we have.
Jerrim, Parker, and Shure do manage to test one factor: whether kids were choosing to bullshit about math because they wanted to look good to the people scoring the tests. If that was the case, the researchers reasoned, they’d also bullshit about their school attendance. Yet there was no correlation between claimed attendance and propensity to claim mastery of made-up subjects.
The PISA test also provides a snapshot of a single point in time, and the researchers point out that we don’t even know whether tendency to bullshit is a stable trait. We also don’t know how the bullshitters turn out.
Jerrim, Parker, and Shure write:
The implications of being a bullshitter remain unclear. Although this concept often has negative connotations, being able to bullshit convincingly may be useful in certain situations (, job interviews, negotiations, grant applications). Yet the social and labour market outcomes of bullshitters remain unknown and is thus a key issue in need of further research.
What is clear is that bullshitters are hard to avoid. Breaking down the data by school showed that very little of the variance in bullshitting seemed to be a product of that social environment. “This perhaps helps to explain why everyone knows a bullshitter,” the authors conclude. “These individuals seem to be relatively evenly spread across schools.”