The (not generally scientific, but…) Washington Post shares an elegantly constructed social science experiment that measures a person’s likelihood to bluff their way to success – or, as the researchers put it, “Bullshitters. Who Are They and What Do We Know about Their Lives?”:
Research by John Jerram and Nikki Shure of the University College of London, and Phil Parker of Australian Catholic University attempted to measure the pervasiveness of this trait in society and identify its most ardent practitioners.
Study participants were asked to assess their knowledge of 16 math topics on a five-point scale ranging from “never heard of it” to “know it well, understand the concept.” Crucially, three of those topics were complete fabrications: “proper numbers,” “subjunctive scaling” and “declarative fractions.” Those who said they were knowledgeable about the fictitious topics were categorized as BSers.
Using a data set spanning nine predominantly English-speaking countries, researchers delineated a number of key findings. First, men are much more likely than women to master the art of hyperbole, as are the wealthy relative to the poor or middle class. North Americans, meanwhile, tend to slip into this behavior more readily than English speakers in other parts of the globe. And if there were a world championship, as a true devotee might appreciate, the title would go to Canada, data show.
The study drew from the Program for International Student Assessment, which is administered to tens of thousands of 15-year-olds worldwide. The test included a background questionnaire that captures demographic information, along with students’ attitudes toward the subjects they study in school. That section of the test included the questions about math knowledge.
Taken as a whole, the results appear to suggest that the countries with the greatest propensity toward bombast also have the smallest variances between groups living within them. In the U.S. and Canada, for instance, there may simply be so much BS going around that everyone ends up partaking in it.
In Europe, the trait is less widespread but more confined to males and the wealthy. That may result in less pressure on women and the non-rich to enhance their social standing through pretense.
“Being able to bulls— convincingly may be useful in certain situations (e.g. job interviews, negotiations, grant applications),” the study authors write. That would be a plausible explanation for why kids from wealthy families are more likely to adopt this behavior: they’re taking cues from their successful parents.
The study also suggests that men’s higher propensity toward this behavior “could help them earn higher wages and explain some of the gender wage gap,” said study co-author Nikki Shure. “This has important implications for thinking about tasks in job interviews and how to evaluate performance.”
The original study, published by the Institute of Labor Economics, is posted here (pdf).
And by the way, it’s interesting to note that of the English-speaking countries ranked, Scotland had the biggest gap between number of upper-class BSers and number of lower-class BSers… and the lowest overall BS ranking. The Scots, by this metric at least, are indeed straight shooters.