Bullshit Links - August 2023
Had a great conversation with Chris Williamson on the Modern Wisdom podcast. We talked about status games, happiness, the difference between happiness and meaning, what makes things interesting, why social media is brain-poison, the problem with our desires, the dangers of utopianism, and how to cope with the crushing despair that comes from knowing everything is bullshit. Check it out here (or watch it on Youtube).
New research shows that boosting people’s desire for status, by having them read an article about how awesome it is to have high status, increases their desire to delay reproduction and have fewer kids. Our status games might be contributing to the extinction of our species.
You know that saying, “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter”? Apparently you can. Studies show that more frequent bullshitters are more likely to gullibly believe others’ bullshit. Maybe there’s an unspoken symbiosis among bullshitters—a kind of “I’ll buy your bullshit if you buy mine” kind of thing? Are we anti-bullshitters missing out?
Maybe. This study shows that if you talk about feel-good bullshit (e.g., “good things happen to certain people because they attract positive energy”), it makes people think you’re a kind, generous sweetie. It’s a kind of virtue signal, and it appears to be effective.
Don’t worry, though. Bullshitters eventually get what’s coming to them. This study shows that people who are more susceptible to feel-good bullshit are more likely make bad investments and experience bankruptcy.
Speaking of feel-good bullshit, you know that thing called “growth mindset”? The idea that you can make yourself smarter by believing it’s possible to make yourself smarter? Turns out (surprise surprise) that doesn’t work, according to a new meta-analysis.
I recently discovered this naughty academic paper with the title “Fuck Nuance”, which critiques some boring work in sociology. My take: nuance is bad for theories but good for descriptions. The theory of evolution, for example, is very very simple and un-nuanced. But the stuff it explains—i.e, the entire biological world—is very very complex and nuanced. The reason sociology is too nuanced is that many of its “theories” are not actually theories—they’re just highfalutin redescriptions of stuff. Fuck that.
Speaking of profanity, I’ve been reading this book about the cognitive linguistics of profanity. It really gets into the weeds on the science and etymology of swearing. Apparently, swear words have their own alien kind of grammar that is unique from the rest of language. Recommended.
Also recommended is fellow substacker and former neuroscientist Erik Hoel’s new book. He has a pretty devastating critique of a lot of the overhyped research in neuroscience. Maybe the field needs less nuance and more Darwin? Also, he presents one of the best defenses of free will I’ve ever read. I think I’m convinced it’s not bullshit.
Why do we judge people on the internet as evil in every possible way, when all they did was say something tone-deaf one time, and we don’t even know them? New research argues it’s a mental shortcut. We don’t have time to attend to the nuances of everyone’s moral character when we have hundreds or thousands of superficial relationships to choose from, including parasocial ones. We glance at a person and think they’re uniformly good or bad, in the same way we glance at a product in the supermarket and think it’s uniformly good or bad. Add this to the list of uniquely WEIRD forms of bullshit.
Cool new theory on the origins of religious bullshit. It’s surprisingly simple. People have a self-interested reason to push religious ideas—e.g., “If you eat my fries while I’m not looking, Zeus will smite you!”—and when everyone pushes these ideas for self-interested reasons, you get religion. The theory is not nuanced, and I mean that as a compliment.
The jig is up! Humblebrags don’t work anymore—people see right through them and get annoyed—according to this study. But maybe there's still hope. As Stefan Schubert argues, the humblebrags used in the study were pretty clumsy (“Ugh, my attempt at wearing pants so I won’t get hit on is failing miserably”), so it’s not surprising that people saw through them. Whether subtler forms of humblebragging are effective is an open question. Eventually though, people will get so good at seeing through humblebrags that we’ll stop using them—the status game will collapse—and we’ll start using a new covert status-seeking tactic. But what? Apologetic brags? Half-joking brags? I’m sure we’ll come up with something.
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