Monday, May 11, 2020

How people perceive the minds of the dead: The importance of consciousness at the moment of death

How people perceive the minds of the dead: The importance of consciousness at the moment of death. Cameron M.Doyle, Kurt Gray. Cognition, Volume 202, September 2020, 104308.

Abstract: Immortality is thought to be achieved through heroic deeds, reincarnation, and the afterlife. The present studies reveal an alternative path to transcending death: dying while conscious. Seven studies demonstrate that dying while more awake, aware and/or lucid leads people to see a richer postmortem mind—an effect we call conservation of consciousness. People see more mind in the deceased when they die with their eyes open (Study 1), and while awake (vs. in a coma), while suffering from ALS (vs. from Alzheimer's), while on hallucinogens (vs. sedatives), and while dreaming (vs. in a deep sleep; Study 2). This effect is robust, holding even in a between-subjects design, and even when participants are explicitly encouraged to interpret the mind perception items literally (Study 3). Perceived conservation of consciousness after death is driven more by general perceived awareness than by fear of death (Study 4) and predicts perceptions of mind beyond having a vivid (vs. dull) life (Study 5). The last wishes of the dying are also given more moral weight if made by those who ultimately die while conscious (Study 6). Perceived conservation of consciousness also occurs in the real-world context of a historic cemetery (Study 7). These results reveal a simple way to increase your influence after death and highlight both the power of endings and the subjective nature of mind.

Bullshit ability is predictive of participants’ intelligence and individuals capable of producing more satisfying bullshit are judged by second-hand observers to be higher in intelligence

Turpin, Martin H., Mane Kara-Yakoubian, Alexander C. Walker, and Jonathan A. Fugelsang. 2020. “Bullshit Ability as an Honest Signal of Intelligence.” PsyArXiv. May 11. doi:10.31234/ > final version Evolutionary Psychology, May 17, 2021.

Abstract: The ability to navigate social systems efficiently is critical to our species. Humans appear endowed with a cognitive system that has at least partially formed to best meet the unique cognitive challenges that emerge in a highly social species. Bullshitting, a style of communication characterised by an intent to be convincing or impressive without concern for the truth, is ubiquitous within human societies. Across two studies (N = 1,017), we assess whether participants’ ability to produce satisfying and seemingly accurate bullshit (i.e., explanations of fake concepts) acts as an honest signal of their intelligence. Consistent with our hypotheses, we find that bullshit ability is predictive of participants’ intelligence and individuals capable of producing more satisfying bullshit are judged by second-hand observers to be higher in intelligence. We interpret these results as adding further evidence for human intelligence being naturally geared towards the efficient navigation of social systems. The ability to produce satisfying bullshit may serve to assist individuals in negotiating their social world, both as an energetically efficient strategy for impressing others and as an honest signal of one’s intelligence.

From the final version:

The current work provides initial evidence for bullshit ability as an honest signal of intelligence. We find that the ability to create satisfying and seemingly accurate bullshit (e.g., explanations of fake concepts) was associated with obtaining higher scores on two measures of cognitive ability (i.e., the Wordsum and RPM). Interestingly, we find that one’s ability to produce satisfying bullshit is independent of one’s willingness to produce bullshit. Indeed, the two were uncorrelated in our studies, and had opposite associations with measures of intelligence. Others have found similar negative associations with measures of intelligence. For example, Pennycook and Rand (2019) found that overclaiming (arguably a form of bullshitting very similar to our bullshit willingness measure) was negatively correlated with performance on the Cognitive Reflection Task. Additionally, in a study by Littrell and colleagues (2021), intelligence (as indexed by Numeracy and Wordsum) was found to be negatively associated with persuasive bullshitting frequency.

It would seem logical that those who are better at bullshitting would opt to use it more frequently, however, we do not find this here. A possible explanation may be one which appeals to Theory of Mind models of intelligence. Of the three evolutionary pressures discussed in the introduction, the current set of studies has largely focused on a Machiavellian view, that intelligence affords us opportunities to deceive others to our advantage, as well as an IQ-signaling perspective, whereby bullshitting may be useful as an honest signal of a person’s quality or fitness through signaling their intelligence. We may lean on the third pressure to explain why it is that despite their superior ability to create bullshit, intelligent people seem to display less willingness to spontaneously engage in bullshitting. Part of this explanation may be that increased intelligence also results in a more sophisticated ability to simulate the mental states of others. In casual language, this may be described as “knowing your audience” and as such, they may possess a more sophisticated understanding of when and where bullshitting will work if attempted. Further, if highly intelligent people tend to associate with similarly intelligent people due to factors related to assortative mating, for example, intelligent people preferring intelligent mates or, “like pairs with like” (Thiessen & Gregg, 1980) or general homophily (McPherson et al., 2001) they may often find themselves around people who are likely to detect attempts at bullshitting, lowering its appeal as a first-order social strategy. As previous research has argued, a determiner of whether people will make an attempt to bullshit someone is whether they believe it will go undetected (Petrocelli, 2018). If smarter people are better able to know the contents of other people’s thoughts, they may be more carefully calibrated to the conditions under which an attempt at bullshitting will be unsuccessful. Of note, “bullshit ability,” as measured in our studies, involved the production of explanations for fake concepts, while “bullshit willingness” only required that the participant be willing to rate their knowledge of such fake concepts higher than “none.” Therefore, the lack of association we observed could be due to the specific methods selected to measure these two constructs. Future work should further dissociate the processes underlying one’s ability and willingness to produce bullshit.

While work has begun examining the degree to which personality may predict receptivity to bullshit (Bainbridge et al., 2019Čavojová et al., 2020), it has yet to be explored how personality influences the tendency or ability to bullshit. It could be the case that different personality traits (e.g., openness, honesty-humility, agreeableness; Lee & Ashton, 2004), moderate one’s willingness to engage in bullshitting. For example, a person who scores high in honesty-humility, a personality dimension which captures traits like sincerity, fairness, or modesty, may be less willing to bullshit, given that bullshitting is characterized by the desire to impress others without regard for the truth. The reverse may be true for those who are low in agreeableness, they may, especially when confronted with a disagreement, be more likely to deemphasize the importance of truth in favor of self-advancement through the use of bullshit. The numerous ways that common personality factors may interact in predicting the tendency and ability to bullshit makes for a promising topic of future exploration.

Regardless of whether bullshit ability honestly signals one’s intelligence, of potentially greater importance is that skilled bullshit producers are perceived by others as highly intelligent. From the perspective of navigating social systems, being perceived as intelligent may be just as valuable to an agent as actually being intelligent, as this perception may afford one opportunities to obtain status and form relationships as well as have greater trust placed in their competence. To this point, we observed a strong positive association between bullshit ability and perceived intelligence. However, this association was found in a situation in which those judging the intelligence of bullshit producers knew nothing of these individuals except their ability to produce satisfying explanations of real and fake concepts. Thus, it is likely that the strength of this association was overestimated in the present work as–with limited information–any signal of quality may have been exaggerated. In addition, as Bullshit Raters rated bullshit ability and perceived intelligence using similar 5-point scales, the strength of this association may be inflated due to unthoughtful responding by some participants (i.e., some participants may be inclined to simply select the same values on the scales).

Overall, we interpret these results as initial evidence that the ability to bullshit well provides an honest signal of a person’s ability to successfully navigate social systems, fitting the current work into existing frameworks whereby human intelligence is geared towards efficiently navigating such systems (Dunbar, 1998Crow, 1993). More specifically, we propose that the ability to produce satisfying bullshit may have emerged as an energetically efficient strategy for achieving an individual’s goals (such as acquiring status or impressing mates). That is, a person can engage in the arduous process of acquiring expert skills in domains that they could then leverage to accomplish certain goals, or can use bullshit as a strategy that potentially produces the same benefits at a much smaller cost (Turpin et al., 2019). Of course, these strategies need not be mutually exclusive, as the ability to produce satisfying bullshit may help even highly skilled individuals achieve their goals over equally skilled peers. This may be especially true in domains in which success depends largely on the subjective evaluations of others (e.g., art, advertising, politics, life coaching, journalism, humanities).


An obvious limitation of the current work is its correlational nature, meaning that we cannot conclude that being more intelligent causes a person to be a better bullshitter. The current study merely provides preliminary evidence consistent with one plausible causal model. Future work should seek to explicitly probe the causal relation between intelligence and bullshit ability if any such relation exists. In addition, as noted above, the association between perceived intelligence and bullshit ability is likely overestimated in our sample due to the limited information available to the raters and the means of assessment. With respect to the latter, future research should include alternative metrics to assess perceived intelligence (e.g., estimating the actual IQ of bullshit producers using a number rather than a rating scale) to limit the possibility of unthoughtful responding contributing to the association.

The use of the WordSum and Raven’s Progressive Matrices made the conduct of the study possible given constraints on time. Independently, they predict IQ fairly well with correlations ranging between r = .55 and r = .66 between scores on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale and Raven’s Matrices, and a correlation between Wordsum performance and IQ of r = .88 (Burke, 1985Malhotra et al., 2007McLaurin et al., 1973). However, more sophisticated measures for IQ would improve the accuracy of any cognitive ability measurement and therefore provide a more exact picture of the true relation between bullshit ability and cognitive ability. Relatedly, more opportunities to assess bullshit ability through either increasing the number of fake concepts participants were to bullshit about, or even better, using multiple different tasks which meet the criteria for “bullshitting” would improve our ability to draw conclusions about “bullshitting” behavior generally.

The bullshit generation task required participants to produce bullshit by explicitly directing them to ignore the truth. This is, under a Frankfurtian definition, “bullshit,” but this task is merely a substitute for the truly interesting question of how bullshit ability and cognitive ability relate in naturalistic settings, where bullshitting happens spontaneously. This artificial task is sufficient for establishing some initial evidence of the link between bullshit ability and cognitive ability, but more work is required to identify the nature of this relation.