The Einstein Effect: People Trust Nonsense More if They Think a Scientist Said It 

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The Einstein Effect: People Trust Nonsense More if They Think a Scientist Said It 


CONOR FEEHLY 
13 FEBRUARY 2022


Discontinuity is the antithesis of inspiration. The complexity of the present time seems to demand an unveiling of our hopes if we are going to survive. This life is nothing short of a blossoming osmosis of mythic understanding. Sounds like bullshit? That's because it is.

These statements were generated using the New Age Bullshit Generator, an algorithm that combines new-age buzzwords and seemingly intellectual wording to create phrases that sound profound. 

An international team of researchers recently presented people with some 'pseudo-profound bullshit' created by the generator to see if they found the statements more credible if they came from a scientist or a spiritual guru. 

In total, 10,195 participants from 24 countries answered questions relating to the supposed credibility of the statements; they were also asked about their own degrees of religiosity. 

The results suggest that people generally find statements more credible if they come from a scientist when compared to a spiritual guru, with 76 percent of participants rating the 'scientist's' balderdash at or above the midpoint of the credibility scale, compared with 55 percent for the 'guru'. 

A fake quote attributed to a scientist that reads, "Yes, it is possible to exterminate the things that can confront us, but not without hope on our side. Turbulence is born in the gap where transformation has been excluded. It is in evolving that we are re-energized."(Hoogeveen et al., Nat. Hum. Behav., 2022 and New Age Bullshit Generator)

Additionally, individuals who scored high for religiosity still showed a preference for the statement from the scientist compared to the spiritual guru; however, it was relatively weaker than the general sample. Religious individuals also gave higher credibility judgments to gurus compared to the general sample but were still lower than the scientist.  

The authors think their results could be down to what's been previously called the 'Einstein effect', where trusted sources of information are given the benefit of the doubt because of the social credibility they possess. 

"From an evolutionary perspective, deference to credible authorities such as teachers, doctors, and scientists is an adaptive strategy that enables effective cultural learning and knowledge transmission. Indeed, if the source is considered a trusted expert, people are willing to believe claims from that source without fully understanding them," state the researchers. 

In other words, the concepts that Einstein could comprehend were outside the intellectual paygrade of most people, and so a certain level of trust that he knows what he is talking about has to be granted.

However, in some cases, the team suggests that incomprehensible statements from credible sources may be appreciated not just in spite of, but because of their incomprehensibility, demonstrated in the speech of some spiritual leaders – we can call this the 'Guru effect'. 

A slightly different interpretation of the findings argues that the credibility of what someone is saying and who they are depends on individual and cultural factors, such as the perceiver's political ideology and worldview. 

"In the absence of the means to rationally evaluate a claim and reliable source information, people probably infer credibility based on beliefs about the group to which the source belongs (for example, 'conservatives', 'scientists'). In this process, similarities between one's own worldview and that of the source's group may serve as a proxy for being a benevolent and reliable source," note the authors. 

Previous research has found Christians to require less evidence for religious claims (the efficacy of prayer to cure illness) than for scientific claims (the efficacy of medication to cure illness). Additionally, evangelical Christians are found more likely to accept statements opposing their personal views when the views are attributed to an ingroup religious leader compared to an outgroup religious leader.

A fake quote attributed to a spiritual leader that reads, "We are being called to explore the cosmos itself as an interface between faith and empathy. We must learn how to lead authentic lives in the face of that delusion. It is in refining that we are are guided."(Hoogeveen et al., Nat. Hum. Behav., 2022 and New Age Bullshit Generator)

In the current study, the authors chose to contrast 'scientist' with 'spiritual guru' instead of 'religious leader', because they wanted to make sure they selected an authority that wasn't specific to any particular religion, given that the study was taking place across different countries. 

"Whereas religiosity and spirituality are overlapping but not interchangeable constructs, self-reported religiosity has been positively associated with belief in spiritual phenomena such as fate, spiritual energy, and a connected universe. Consequently, we expected religiosity to be associated with increased receptivity to gobbledegook from a spiritual authority," say the authors.

While there is variation across cultures with regards to who is deemed the more credible source of information, the authors bring up the point that, at some point in the past, scientists overtook spiritual and religious leaders as the main trustworthy sources of information, at least in terms of explanations for phenomena in the physical world. 

It's no secret that information coming from a scientist is deemed trustworthy today, with a slew of advertising and political campaigns around the world drawing on scientists to validate their own products and ideas. Luckily, scientists and science in general encourage a good dose of skepticism when grand claims are made. 

The study was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. 


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