Politically conservative people tend to be a bit more receptive to political nonsense, according to new research that examined participants from three different countries. The study, which examined “political claims that are intended to persuade voters but are so vague and broad as to be essentially meaningless,” has been published in the 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 political bullshit issue for two main reasons.
“One is that I have been interested in politics and political psychology for quite some time,” he explained. “Second, I was inspired by the closely related work of Gordon Pennycook and his colleagues on pseudo-deep nonsense (sentences that sound deep because they use complex words, but don’t actually make sense). Specifically, it was an article that investigated whether neoliberals are more receptive to pseudo-profound nonsense. In the discussion, they give a possible bullshit example in politics, where politicians might say something like ‘I believe in America!’ Then I realized – oh my God, there is much going on here.”
Given how often politicians use grandiose phrases that have no real meaning, Gligoric was surprised to find that there was little research on it. “To me, the discrepancy between the prevalence of the phenomenon and the lack of research on the subject is staggering,” he said.
The new findings are based on research conducted with 179 American participants, 185 Serbian participants, and 170 Dutch participants.
In line with previous research on receptivity to nonsense, the researchers presented participants with a list of statements that included both pseudo-profound nonsense (“Good health imparts reality to subtle creativity”) and meaningful sentences (“A river runs through a rock , not because of its potency but because of its persistence”). Participants were asked to rate how “profound” they thought each statement was.
To measure the receptivity to political Shit, the researchers then had the participants read about hypothetical political programs that had been proposed during the presidential election in Gonfel’s fictional country.
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 last several decades. Our greatest effort will be put into restoring dignity to our country so as not to embarrass our ancestors. Pride and dignity are our values and I am committed to fighting for them.”
Three significant political programs outlining specific policies were also included. For example, one program outlined a “plan to reduce college tuition rates by 20% and provide affordable health care to citizens with below-average incomes.” The researchers asked the participants to rate how much they would support each program and how likely they were to vote for the candidate who had 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”).
Across all three samples, Gligorić and colleagues found that participants who were most receptive to pseudo-deep shit tended to be more receptive to political shit too. The findings provide evidence that “shit exists in politics (eg, in speeches, slogans),” Gligorić told PsyPost. “And by ‘bullshit’ we don’t mean bullshit or lies: we mean saying something so abstract that you can’t agree or disagree with it, it just doesn’t make sense. And we give many examples in the document itself.”
The researchers also found that participants who endorsed statements like “The free market economic system is a fair system” and “The free market economic system is an efficient system” were more receptive to political nonsense. Furthermore, support for political shit was associated with a higher likelihood of having voted for conservative candidates.
“It seems that right-wing people, especially neoliberals, are more likely to fall for it,” Gligorić 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 more. But I would say that everyone uses it, it’s just a structural feature of politics.”
Future research could help devise a simpler measure of receptivity to political bullshit. “Right now, we have several measures that we use to investigate how receptive someone is to political nonsense,” Gligorić explained. “I think the best advance is to come up with a measure of how much political nonsense is used by politicians. If we were to develop such a measure, there would be many things to explore: what is the prevalence in an average political discourse, when do politicians resort to it, which politicians trust it most often, etc.
The study, “Political Shit-Receptivity and Its Correlates: A Cross-Country Validation of the Concept,” was authored by Vukašin Gligorić, Allard Feddes, and Bertjan Doosje.