We all know that person who is quick to offer some nonsensical quote in any and every situation. It turns out that there may be a reason for that. Studies show that people try to find deeper meaning within words, even when the words are randomly arranged and actually mean nothing. Apparently we’re always looking for something meaningful and profound, even when there is nothing there.
For instance, the randomly generated sentence “wholeness quiets infinite phenomena” might sound meaningful at first glance. But in reality, the random group of words has no distinct meaning whatsoever. Still, some people might have read this as something with deeper importance.
Doctorate student at the University of Waterloo Gordon Pennycook said, “A lot of people are prone to what I call pseudo-profound bullshit.”
Pennycook and a team of his colleagues generated many meaningless sentences in order to gauge what kind of reactions people would have to words that are utter nonsense. By using a random word generator on the internet, Pennycook and his team were able to generate countless random sentences.
After coming up with the sentences, the team asked almost 300 participants to rate the importance of the group of words on a scale of one to five. The random words managed to achieve an average rating of 2.6, indicating that they were viewed as somewhat profound.
However, more than a quarter of respondents gave the words a rating of 3 or higher. This score indicates that the words were considered to be profound or, in some cases, very profound.
In a second study, Pennycook and his team made use of real life instances of pseudo-profound statements by taking tweets from various Twitter accounts that generally contain vague phrases, such as “Nature is a self-regulating ecosystem of awareness.” The results were essentially the same.
Pennycook said, “They basically thought the tweets were just as profound as the randomly generated sentences. So they were equally bad at seeing the B.S. in both.”
The team then conducted a sort of control study, just to make sure that people weren’t calling everything profound. The third study contained logical but mundane statements, such as “Most people enjoy some sort of music.” Even then, many people tended to rate the mundane sentences as profound.
Finally, a fourth study presented people with actual profound statements like “A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence.” These sentences generally scored the highest on the scale.
It is unknown exactly why people tend to see important meaning in vague buzzwords and random sentences. One theory is that people refuse to accept misunderstanding for the purpose of having nothing to understand. The researchers have also described those more susceptible to utter nonsense as generally having a lower cognitive ability and being more prone to confusion. These people are also more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs.
Pennycook said, “I would say that a lot of people are just far too open to everything. They aren’t skeptical or critical enough of what they hear and read.”
Humans are always on the prowl for something important and profound, but sometimes they just can’t seem accept that there is nothing there.