(Guest post by Greg Forster)
The Institute of Labor Economics brings you a highly scholarly study entitled: “Bullshitters. Who Are They and What Do We Know about Their Lives?”
You see, PISA 2012 included a very interesting test item designed to discover which students would claim to know more than they did. The item listed 16 mathematical concepts (e.g. “exponential function”) and asked test-takers to indicate how familiar they were with those concepts. The catch? Three of the concepts – proper number, subjunctive scaling and declarative fraction – were fictional. (“Subjunctive scaling” is my favorite.)
The ILE researchers coded test-takers who claimed to be highly familiar with these concepts as “bullshitters” and proceeded to analyze their characteristics. The analysis was limited to the nine English-speaking countries in PISA, but that still left them with 40,000 test subjects.
The U.S. and Canada rule the roost as the nations with the most dishonest teenagers. Meanwhile, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland were clustered at the bottom. Apparently the Celts are trustworthy after all – who knew?
- Teenage boys, you will not be shocked to learn, were more likely to puff themselves up than teenage girls in all nine countries. However, the gender gap was substantially smaller in North America than in Europe.
- Socioeconomic advantage is also associated with self-fabrication in all nine countries, but with variations in size that follow no obvious pattern (larger differences in Scotland and New Zealand, smaller in England, Canada and the U.S.).
- There was greater variation in the results for immigrants v. native residents. In Europe, immigrants were more likely to feign expertise; they were less so elsewhere, and there was no visible difference in the U.S.
- No summary could do this one justice, so I will simply quote: “Finally, in additional analysis, we have also estimated the within versus between school variation of the bullshit scale within each country. Our motivation was to establish whether bullshitters tend to cluster together within the same school, or if bullshitters are fairly equally distributed across schools. We find that the ICCs tend to be very low; in most countries less than three percent of the variance in the bullshit scale occurs between schools. This perhaps helps to explain why everyone knows a bullshitter; these individuals seem to be relatively evenly spread across schools (and thus peer groups).”
Also of interest in ILE’s study is the extensive literature review on the subject, undoubtedly a helpful service in this emerging field of study. The authors point to Harry B. Frankfurt’s pathbreaking inquiry On Bullshit as the reigning theoretical account of the phenomenon.
Hopefully we can expect to see more research on this important topic soon!