Students who are wealthier and male are more likely than others to claim that they know more than they actually do, says a new study.
The study, which reviewed surveys of 40,000 15-year-old students from across nine English-speaking countries, found that boys and people from wealthier families are more likely to be “bullshitters,” which it defines as “individuals who claim knowledge or expertise in an area where they actually have little experience at all.”
The study, which was published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, looked at survey data attached to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an assessment which compares students’ academic abilities across countries. The survey asked students how well they understood 16 mathematical concepts, but there was a catch: three of the concepts were made up.
Across all of the nine English-speaking countries, boys and more economically-advantaged students were more likely to exaggerate their knowledge, Nikki Shure, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of economics in the Department of Social Science at University College London, tells TIME.
“You’re claiming expertise in things you have absolutely no knowledge of,” says Shure. “You couldn’t. These things don’t exist.”
The countries where students were guilty of the most BS? The U.S. and Canada. Students in the two counties had scores that were .25 and .3 above average on the study’s “bullshit scale.” However, the two counties also had the narrowest gap between boys and girls, with a gap of .25 and .34 between the genders. In England and Ireland, the gap was much wider – .48 and .46 points.
The study also asked students to assess their own personal characteristics. Students who were more likely to BS about their math knowledge were also more likely to say that they are more popular, persevering and have good problem-solving abilities.
Shure says that she is interested in determining whether a person’s ability to BS has a major impact on economic inequality between men and women, and how the ability plays out across socioeconomic lines.
“You can imagine that the people that score high on this bullshit index are good at certain things that might be rewarded,” says Shure. “It might be an interview to get into college. It could be an interview for a job, or an internship. It could be those skills end up helping exacerbate the gap that we observe between people from rich backgrounds and poor backgrounds, and even men and women.”
She argues that learning more about the phenomenon could help employers or colleges to come up with strategies to cut through the BS and determine which students are actually the most capable.
However, Shure says that it’s conceivable that “bullshitters” may have an advantage when it comes to getting ahead: “They clearly have very high opinions of themselves. And that could be associated with becoming leaders in the future.”
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