Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Faculty of Science
Anne E. Wilson
There are myriad methods offered in the “self-help industry” and on social media promising to improve happiness. Some messages are evidence-based, often drawn from positive psychology research, and suggest actions requiring time and effort, while other messages may offer feel-good platitudes that are devoid of meaningful guidance; we label this latter type of content “inspirational bullshit.” Across two manuscripts, we investigate the predictors of liking different kinds of positive self-help content, from meaningless randomly-generated phrases to vacuous positivity to evidence-based advice. In the first manuscript, across three studies, bullshit receptivity (a tendency to judge pseudo-profound statements as profound) and people’s lay theories about the controllability of happiness predicted attraction to positive self-help advice, but with differential preference for distinct types. Using multi-level modelling analysis, we found that receptivity to bullshit predicts attraction to any inspirational content with a lack of discernment between randomly generated “inspirational bullshit” and vacuous “feel good” advice compared to evidence-based advice. A belief that happiness is controllable also predicted greater attraction to happiness advice, but with more discernment favouring meaningful advice rather than empty inspirational content. Although this research may suggest that people are taken in by inspirational bullshit, it is also possible that these messages act as a springboard for people’s own creative interpretation. In the second manuscript, across two studies, we sought to understand what people are thinking about when they see positive self-help content, by asking people to provide their own interpretations of random, vacuous, or evidence-based content. At least for some people (including those high in bullshit receptivity), the “inspirational bullshit” phrases appear to provide a blank canvas that prompts deeper creative reflection. People higher in bullshit receptivity report considering their own beliefs, experiences and knowledge about happiness to derive meaning from inspirational bullshit. Since people higher in bullshit receptivity also report higher well-being, we suggest that dismissing empty inspiration as merely bullshit could be premature.
Abel, Esther, "Inspirational Bullshit: The Good, the Bad, and the Vacuous" (2023). Theses and Dissertations (Comprehensive). 2542.