Serious Scholarly Research on B.S.


(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?

Other findings:

  • 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!

4 Responses to Serious Scholarly Research on B.S.

  1. […] And now, of course, everyone else is wondering what post it could possibly have been, so I suppose I have to link to it. Enjoy! […]

  2. Michael F. Shaughnessy says:

    Interesting article….I think part of the problem is these ” test preparer ” companies that encourage students to answer all of the questions on the off chance that they will get a few correct- in the last few minutes of the test- and also encourage them to use the process of elimination.

    This is the kind of thinking that drives some people crazy- for example- these students who apply for scholarships for which they are totally inappropriate—for example, males- who are applying for scholarships for single mothers—and music majors- who apply for scholarships in math…..basically- they do not read the criteria…and this reflects a school system that praises, praises, praises students who come to the erroneous conclusion that they must be smart- since they have been praised so much. Wild guessing and ” best attempt” are serious concerns- which is why tests have also gotten a bit longer- with these various “fillers” . Years ago, I published something on “outliers” and these individuals are somewhat like outliers – emphasis on the last part of the word. They tend to skew the results and we begin to wonder as to the veracity of all those 5’s or 1’s on a Likert Scale.

    • Zeev Wurman says:

      The blind guessing could have been solved years ago by simply docking half a point for each incorrect answer. But test companies don’t like it, because the guessing artificially inflates students’ scores so students look better.

    • pdexiii says:

      Earlier this year I stopped giving regular, low-stakes tests that were multiple choice. Too many students admitted they just guessed, and worse weren’t too moved by their poor results. I teach at a Title 1 school in Los Angeles County, but the b.s. factor indeed seems prevalent among our population.

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