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Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Lies and bullshit: The negative effects of misinformation grow stronger over time

Petrocelli, J. V., Seta, C. E., & Seta, J. J. (2023). 
Applied Cognitive Psychology, 37(2), 409–418. 


In a world where exposure to untrustworthy communicators is common, trust has become more important than ever for effective marketing. Nevertheless, we know very little about the long-term consequences of exposure to untrustworthy sources, such bullshitters. This research examines how untrustworthy sources—liars and bullshitters—influence consumer attitudes toward a product. Frankfurt's (1986) insidious bullshit hypothesis (i.e., bullshitting is evaluated less negatively than lying but bullshit can be more harmful than are lies) is examined within a traditional sleeper effect—a persuasive influence that increases, rather than decays over time. We obtained a sleeper effect after participants learned that the source of the message was either a liar or a bullshitter. However, compared to the liar source condition, the same message from a bullshitter resulted in more extreme immediate and delayed attitudes that were in line with an otherwise discounted persuasive message (i.e., an advertisement). Interestingly, attitudes returned to control condition levels when a bullshitter was the source of the message, suggesting that knowing an initially discounted message may be potentially accurate/inaccurate (as is true with bullshit, but not lies) does not result in the long-term discounting of that message. We discuss implications for marketing and other contexts of persuasion.

General Discussion

There is a considerable body of knowledge about the antecedents and consequences of lying in marketing and other contexts (e.g., Ekman, 1985), but much less is known about the other untrustworthy source: The Bullshitter. The current investigation suggests that the distinction between bullshitting and lying is important to marketing and to persuasion more generally. People are exposed to scores of lies and bullshit every day and this exposure has increased dramatically as the use of the internet has shifted from a platform for socializing to a source of information (e.g., Di Domenico et al., 2021). Because things such as truth status and source status fade faster than familiarity, illusory truth effects for consumer products can emerge after only 3 days post-initial exposure (Skurnik et al., 2005), and within the hour for basic knowledge questions (Fazio et al., 2015). As mirrored in our conditions that received discounting cues after the initial attitude information, at times people are lied to, or bullshitted, and only learn afterwards they were deceived. It is then that these untrustworthy sources appear to have a sleeper effect creating unwarranted and undiscounted attitudes.

It should be noted that our data do not suggest that the impact of lie and bullshit discounting cues fade differentially. However, the discounting cue in the bullshit condition had less of an immediate and long-term suppression effect than in the lie condition. In fact, after 14 days, the bullshit communication not only had more of an influence on attitudes, but the influence was not significantly different from that of the control communication. This finding suggests that bullshit can be more insidious than lies. As it relates to marketing, the insidious nature of exposure to bullshit can create false beliefs that subsequently affect behavior, even when people have been told that the information came from a person known to spread bullshit. The insidious nature of bullshit is magnified by the fact that even when it is clear that one is expressing his/her opinion via bullshit, people do not appear to hold the bullshitter to the same standard as the liar (Frankfurt, 1986). People may think that at least the bullshitter often believes his/her own bullshit, whereas the liar knows his/her statement is not true (Bernal, 2006; Preti, 2006; Reisch, 2006). Because of this difference, what may appear to be harmless communications from a bullshitter may have serious repercussions for consumers and organizations. Additionally, along with the research of Foos et al. (2016), the present research suggests that the harmful influence of untrustworthy sources may not be recognized initially but appears over time. The present research suggests that efforts to fight the consequences of fake news (see Atkinson, 2019) are more difficult because of the sleeper effect. The negative effects of unsubstantiated or false information may not only persist but may grow stronger over time.