Wednesday, May 11, 2016


A few weeks ago Richard Morey wrote a blog post[1] about how undergraduate students in psychology learn to bullshit (i.a.) by criticizing peer-reviewed papers (which are difficult to criticize because they shouldn’t contain any severe and easily detectable errors anymore). 

When I was studying we didn’t have to write any essays or to criticize any studies. So maybe I didn’t learn about the art of bullshitting well enough. However, I believe that the problem that bullshitting is rewarded is even greater than that: Guessing an answer in an exam and bullshitting a bit around is almost always better than stating that you don’t know. 

My first MSc-exam was in Clinical psychology. I think, I had learned really well[2], but as this was an important – and also basically[3] my first oral – exam, I was very nervous. The first question the professor asked me was: "Why is the prevalence of major depression increasing?" And I didn’t know! I didn’t even know it was increasing! But if s/he asked that, that must be, right? So I mentally went through all the text-books I’d worked through, searching for the part where they explained *why* more people today are depressed then in the past. I mean, it could be anything, or nothing. More divorces, different foods, more or different industries, different expectations or stressors, different lifestyles? Vaccinations? Exams?[4] But my professor hadn’t asked for some hypotheses or my opinion but *why* that is. And I didn’t know! So I told him/her so, while I kept searching mentally in the text-books and all my notes. His/her next question was *if* I *knew* the theories for depression. As I was still desperately trying to come up with a better answer than "I don’t know" for his/her first question, I just said “yes”, because, well, I knew. At this point, I think s/he possibly felt pranked, because apparently s/he wanted me to name (or explain) those theories not be told that I knew them. Upon clarification I of course explained the theories to her/him, but I had real trouble understanding what s/he wanted from me throughout the whole exam.
It occurred later, much later, to me that s/he probably wanted to ask a "nice" first question whereby my task had been to bullshit something together, despite not knowing. Who knows *if* and *why* the prevalence truly is increasing and *if so* compared to when? 

I don’t blame that professor for my inability to understand my task correctly, so please don’t take me wrong. Of course I could have said: I don’t know… for this and that reason… one would need to know this and that to answer this question. Certainly that would have been much better, but I thought she wanted an answer to the question and not some justification why I don’t have it. 

A lot of people will say "Yeah, but you have to think beyond the facts and combine all the knowledge you have. Everybody can learn some facts so there’s no value in echoing some books without thinking about it by yourself!" And it's true, it's certainly an advantage to be able to think even during – or especially during – exams. But then at least frame the question like it. (E.g. "I'm interested in your opinion/thoughts. Let’s assume the prevalence of major depression was increasing. What could be possible factors that may – or may not – contribute to that? And how could one test if those factors actually do contribute to an increase in the prevalence? What would possible problems in testing those hypotheses be?") Otherwise it invites to bullshitting.
But then, on the other hand, bullshiting seems to be an essential skill in many aspects of life… maybe that is why they select by that….

[Sorry if that post is to bullshitty itself, obviously it’s just my opinion (and experience) and no knowledge… Also sorry for language-errors.]

[1]  Link: 
[2] Or at least A LOT! Probably much more than what was good for me… 
[3] Apart from a tiny part of my final school exams. But that was just a tiny part and therefore not nearly as important.
[4] Not really.