Abstract art with “pseudo-profound” BS titles seen as more meaningful

Abstract art with “pseudo-profound” BS titles seen as more meaningful

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A new study out of the University of Waterloo found that giving abstract paintings "pseudo-profound bullshit titles" made subjects rate the art as more profound than paintings with mundane titles, or no titles at all.
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A new study out of the University of Waterloo found that giving abstract paintings “pseudo-profound bullshit titles” made subjects rate the art as more profound than paintings with mundane titles, or no titles at all.

Getty / Aurich Lawson / M.H. Turpin et al.

Abstract art often gets an undeserved bad rap. Many people famously dismissed Jackson Pollack‘s signature drip paintings in the 1950s, for instance, as being something that a trained chimpanzee could produce. But there might be a strategy to increasing the likelihood of people rating one’s art as being more meaningful. Researchers from the University of Waterloo found that providing so-called “pseudo-profound bullshit” titles primes people to perceive a given work of abstract art as being more profound and helps them infer meaning from the art. They described their work in a paper last fall in the Journal of Judgement and Decision Making, with the provocative title “Bullshit makes the art grow profounder.”

That’s certainly one way to snag some attention for a study. But it’s not without risks, as it opens up the group to sharp criticism, especially from artists who might understandably take umbrage at the use of the term “bullshit” with respect to abstract art. But the Waterloo team also argues that the ability to produce convincing pseudo-profound BS might confer a distinct social advantage, bringing rewards of prestige, status, or material goods, particularly in fields (like abstract art) where there is a fair amount of subjectivity in the evaluation of meaning or value.

It’s worth pointing out upfront that the term “bullshit,” as used here, is a technical term. Really. This is not BS in the colloquial sense, with all the negative connotations that implies. In the academic literature, “pseudo-profound” BS is not defined by being false but by being fake, with no concern for truth or meaning. “Bullshit may be true, false, or meaningless,” the authors wrote. “What makes a claim bullshit is an implied yet artificial attention to truth and meaning.”

Man’s search for meaning

This isn’t the first time a study on “pseudo-profound” BS has been the subject of an academic paper. Back in 2015, psychologist Gordon Pennycook and several colleagues at the University of Waterloo made headlines when they published a paper demonstrating how certain people interpret BS as deeply profound observations.

They presented several randomly generated statements, containing “profound” buzzwords, that were grammatically correct but made no sense logically, along with a 2014 tweet by Deepak Chopra that met the same criteria. They found that the less skeptical participants were less logical and analytical in their thinking and hence much more likely to consider these nonsensical statements (including the Chopra tweet) as being deeply profound.

That study proved highly controversial, in part for what was perceived to be its condescending tone, although it did snag Pennycook et al. a 2016 Ig Nobel Prize. Another researcher, Craig Dalton of the University of New Castle in Australia, specifically faulted its methodology. In his published rejoinder, Dalton likened the nonsensical statements to zen koans, writing, “A flower, the random sounds of a waterfall, a willow tree playing in the breeze, or the random scattering of autumn leaves, may lack the intention of profundity but they can all lead to transcendence and open us to beauty—as can a random statement generated by a computer.”

A sample of the computer-generated and artist-created abstract art used in the study.
Enlarge /

A sample of the computer-generated and artist-created abstract art used in the study.

M.H. Turpin et al.

Pennycook countered that the definition of BS is not open to subjective interpretation in his own commentary (simply titled “It’s Still Bullshit”). “It is not the understanding of the recipient of bullshit that makes something bullshit, it is the lack of concern (or perhaps even understanding) of the truth or meaning of statements by the one who utters it,” he wrote.

According to Martin Turpin of the University of Waterloo, lead author of the recent abstract at study, the general academic literature in the field of judgement and decision-making roughly divides into two camps. Pennycook falls into the camp that emphasizes a need for people to adopt a more rationalist, analytical perspective; his work has focused on protecting people from fake news and other types of misinformation. Turpin’s work falls into the second camp that tries to understand this kind of phenomenon in a human evolutionary social context.

“How do we understand these limitations of human cognition for their functional social purposes?” he told Ars. “We have all these biases that might seem maladaptive, but in their natural context, they’re extremely useful and good. Maybe there’s something to this bullshitting behavior as it reflects our ability to navigate social systems.”

“We’re not trying to criticize art, we’re just trying to study how people make meaning.”

One key difference between the 2015 Pennycook study and this latest paper is that Pennycook et al. were interested in identifying individual differences between those who are susceptible to pseudo-profound BS and those who are not and thus looked at conspiracy beliefs, their degree of analytical thinking, religious beliefs, and so forth. This latest study explores the effect of “priming” on aesthetic appreciation. “External stimuli that help people make sense of art (e.g. titles) have been found to not only increase people’s perception of meaningful abstract modern art, but also their liking of difficult-to-interpret abstract art images,” Turpin et al. wrote.

“We were really looking for, given that some people are susceptible to BS, how does that play out across various domains?” co-author Alex Walker, also from the University of Waterloo, told Ars. ”We’re not trying to criticize art, we’re just trying to study how people make meaning.” And there is solid evidence that how different people experience abstract art is tied to how they deal with meaning, or lack thereof, and how comfortable they are with “perceived meaninglessness.”

An earlier study in March of last year by Turpin et al. did build off Pennycook’s work to some extent, applying it to the domain of abstract art—specifically, whether participants deemed the various images they were shown to be more orderly or patterned and what this ability “to connect spurious information,” as Turpin describes it, might tell us about why some people are more susceptible to BS. “There’s a certain disposition where a person will pick up on what’s being said in that random statement or see a triangular slash of red and connect it to events in their lives,” he said. “I think that might be part of the mechanism that drives the bullshit receptivity.”

More samples of computer-generated and artist-created abstract art used in the study.
Enlarge /

More samples of computer-generated and artist-created abstract art used in the study.

M.H. Turpin et al.

Turpin et al. conducted four iterations of their experiment. The first involved 200 undergraduates who were asked to rate the profundity of various pieces of computer-generated abstract art, some with randomly generated BS titles, others with no titles at all. (Profundity was defined as “of deep meaning; of great and broadly inclusive significance.”) They were also asked to rate the profundity of 50 randomly selected statements and to complete a survey to assess their level of open-minded thinking. As the team had predicted, participants judged the abstract art with pseudo-profound BS titles as more profound compared to the pieces with no titles.

Still, there was always the possibility that participants were using more than one external cue to make judgements about the perceived profundity of the art, not just the titles alone. So in the second study, involving 218 undergraduates, Turpin et al. mixed in mundane titles with the pseudo-profound BS titles. “If this effect is unique to bullshit, then we should expect that only art paired with pseudo-profound bullshit will be perceived as more profound compared to untitled art,” they wrote. And that’s pretty much what they found.

The Waterloo researchers conducted a third iteration of the experiment with 200 undergraduates, relying not just on computer-generated abstract art but also abstract paintings created by actual human artists. The result: it made no difference whether the art in question was created by a computer or human artists.

Finally, Turpin et al. considered one more variable: whether participants could distinguish between randomly generated pseudo-profound BS and statements deploying the jargon common to so-called “International Art English.” According to the authors, IAE’s key features include turning verbs and adjectives into nouns (e.g., potential to potentiality), pairing of like terms (e.g., internal psychology and external reality), and abstract spatial metaphors (e.g., the culmination of many small acts achieves mythic proportions). As expected, participants typically gave similar profundity ratings to the IAE and pseudo-profound BS statements, compared to motivational or mundane statements, indicating that they represent similar rhetorical phenomena.

A social advantage?

The results add to growing evidence that from a social perspective, the ability to spout convincing BS confers a strategic advantage in many cases—not just in the realm of abstract art but in any domain where “competence is not objectively judged using strict and specific criteria, success is determined by impressing others, and the fakery characteristics of bullshit are not strictly monitored and punished,” the authors wrote.

Finding profound meaning in a given piece is just one way that human beings evaluate works of art; perhaps they simply find it aesthetically appealing on a subjective level. Turpin and his cohorts are interested in studying a different aspect that ties into their competition hypothesis: the perceived monetary value of a given work of art. “Based on our theory about using bullshit to gain success, value becomes the most important dependent variable, in terms of whether these titles can increase the value of your painting,” he said.

Granted, the participants were all undergraduates, which could skew results, but Walker insists that the team’s data is solid. “I think the effect is pretty reliable and robust,” he said, pointing out that they’ve successfully replicated their findings several times. Future studies could evaluate whether participants with significant art expertise would be as susceptible to the effect, or (more likely) would be better able to distinguish between BS and truly honest and insightful descriptions.

“I think if you give our paper an honest read, you’ll understand that we don’t actually hate the art.”

One reason the Waterloo team’s paper drew criticism might be the “outsider factor,” according to Walker. ”We don’t pretend to be great art scholars,” said Walker. “We are mostly interested in studying social dynamics in the context of art as a competitive domain.” That, in turn, might be perceived as somehow lessening the aesthetic value of abstract art. “When we study it in the context of competition for prestige, we’re reducing this fantastic phenomenon—the creation of art—down to something that feels a little more profane,” said Turpin. “It’s just another avenue where humans can cynically compete with one another to gain advantages. We’re taking something people consider sacred and making it a little more profane by trying to dissect it.”

And there is also likely a fair bit of misunderstanding regarding the specific definition being used, which can influence how people perceive the overall tone of the paper. “They think of bullshit as having a negative connotation and so they think we’re being negative about the art,” said Walker. “But we clearly say that bullshit in the context we’re talking about doesn’t need to have a negative connotation. If you can make someone feel profundity, however you do that in an art domain, I don’t see anything wrong with that.” So if anything, the team’s views skew more closely to those of Craig Dalton.

“I think if you give our paper an honest read, you’ll understand that we don’t actually hate the art,” said Turpin.

DOI: Judgement and Decision Making, November 2019. 10.31234/osf.io/528g3  (About DOIs).

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via Ars Technica https://arstechnica.com

March 11, 2020 at 03:44AM

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