It’s hard to underestimate our brain’s ability to find meaning in the banal, the contradictory, even the unintelligible. There is a scene on the television show Silicon Valley in which a tech mogul leaves a room saying “the bear is sticky with honey.” His underlings argue over the meaning of this vague metaphor, until it’s revealed that their boss was actually referring to the gumminess of the bear-shaped container of honey at the coffee station. The bear was literally sticky with honey.
I have had the chance to test a related phenomenon in classrooms of high school students by getting them to experience the Forer effect. Each student receives a sealed envelope containing a reading tailored to their specific Zodiac sign. After they’re done reading it, I ask by show of hands who thought this was an accurate description of who they are. Nearly everyone raises their hand. They are then asked to read their neighbours’ descriptions and they realize they all received the exact same text. But because the text is filled with general pronouncements like “you have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not used to your advantage” and with double-headed statements like “you are at times sociable and at others, more reserved,” everyone can recognize themselves in these.
Alternative health communities are breeding grounds for these vague communications that smell of profundity. The hazy proclamations of health guru Deepak Chopra led Tom Williamson to create the website WisdomOfChopra.com. The site puts together words found in Chopra’s real Twitter stream and randomly assembles them into sentences. Here is the one I got: “Greatness exists as the progressive expansion of balance.” Very profound. These kinds of statements have been put in front of research participants to figure out how meaningful they appear to be and why we may be susceptible to them. A recent paper on this issue provides evidence that falling for this pseudo-profound B.S. may often be due to a failure to think on our part. If we only slowed down, we may not fall for these mirages so often.
These days, you are likely to find this pseudo-profound emptiness from the mouths of the conspiritualists, influencers who engage both in conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 and in the language of spiritual awakening. Lorie Ladd, who describes herself as an “ascension teacher and a Multi-Dimensional Channel” and who is frequently cited by conspiritualist Dr. Christiane Northrup, was recently quoted as saying the following:
“Regardless of what the external reality looks like, this is how an entire human collective shifts. So it might not be what we expect, it might not be what we want, it might not be the way in which we would like it to unravel. It may be the exact way we want it to unravel, but this is how we slowly click and move from one frequency to a little bit higher frequency, to a little bit higher frequency.”
On the podcast Conspirituality, which critically examines this growing movement, co-host Matthew Remski summarized Ladd’s content-free proclamation by saying, “There doesn’t seem to be anything to sink your teeth into.” Indeed, Ladd is saying humanity will change in ways we don’t like or in ways we do like, a pretty full-proof prediction, and talks about “frequencies” in a way completely divorced from science. It sounds profound but there is really nothing there.
Vague statements meant to sound profound can serenade us into the clutches of charlatans. We think they must be radiantly smart because we can’t understand what they’re saying but it sure sounds insightful. Often it doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes, it means the bear is sticky with honey.