There’s an old saying that goes “live by the sword, die by the sword.” Well, according to a fascinating new study just released by the University of Waterloo, people who make lies, deception, and exaggeration a daily activity are far more likely than the rest of us to believe a lie themselves. Perhaps the adage should go: “live by the lie, fall for the lie.”
Deception comes in many forms. Some people can’t help but flat out make things up, while others may just have a penchant for exaggeration. We’ve all encountered people cut from this cloth; every story is an adventure, and every day was the best day ever. Ultimately, these deceptive actions serve the same purpose; to help the liar appear impressive, smart, talented, etc.
It’s often said that each person shapes their own reality. These findings suggest that when an individual spends all day “BS-ing” and deceiving other people, it’s eventually going to take a toll on their ability to differentiate fact from fiction. Live in a dream world long enough, and everything blurs together.
“It probably seems intuitive to believe that you can’t bullsh*t a bullsh*tter, but our research suggests that this isn’t actually the case,” says Shane Littrell, lead author of the paper and cognitive psychology Ph.D. candidate at Waterloo. “In fact, it appears that the biggest purveyors of persuasive bullsh*t are ironically some of the ones most likely to fall for it.”
Study authors chose to go with the term “bullsh*t” for this study, defining it as any false or exaggerated information intended to persuade, mislead, or impress someone else. From here, they separate “bullsh*t” into two distinct categories: persuasive and evasive. Persuasive BS is meant to influence or sway others, while the purpose of evasive BS is to conceal the truth via vague or irrelevant information.
This research concludes habitual persuasive bullsh*tters have a very hard time recognizing “impressive-sounding misinformation.” In other words, it’s actually quite easy to BS a bullsh*tter.
Over 800 people took part in this study, hailing from either the United States or Canada. Each person self-reported how often they usually engage in both BS varieties and then rated a series of pseudo-profound/pseudo-scientific statements and fake news headlines across three dimensions (truthfulness, accuracy, and profoundness).
Notably, participants’ overall cognitive abilities and other intelligence indicators (reflective thinking skills, etc) were also assessed. However, these factors didn’t seem to influence the findings much. Liars are gullible, even smart liars.
“We found that the more frequently someone engages in persuasive bullsh*tting, the more likely they are to be duped by various types of misleading information regardless of their cognitive ability, engagement in reflective thinking, or metacognitive skills,” Littrell explains. “Persuasive BSers seem to mistake superficial profoundness for actual profoundness. So, if something simply sounds profound, truthful, or accurate to them that means it really is. But evasive bullsh*tters were much better at making this distinction.”
There’s a famous scene in the seminal sitcom Seinfeld in which George wholeheartedly tells Jerry that “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” There may be some of that going on in these findings as well. For habitual liars, deception is such a frequent activity that it often becomes difficult to remember what really happened and what was fabricated. Believe your own BS & it’s easier to fall for everyone else’s.
The full study can be found here, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.