Essential oils (EOs) extracted from plants often come with overblown claims of medicinal value that have landed distributors into trouble before.
Now a new study shows that a tendency to mistake the meaningless for the profound is a good indicator a person may also put an overzealous amount of faith into essential oils.
While the sample size of 1,202 participants recruited through a student campus and through Amazon Mechanical Turk online isn't a huge one, it's enough to suggest these same associations might be found in the population more generally.
A general tendency to be receptive to bullshit – so being more likely to be taken in by made-up or empty rhetoric – means people are more likely to go all in on the claims of essential oils, the researchers report. That has implications for how doctors might guide patients to more reliable treatments in the future.
"We found that receptivity to pseudo-profound fabricated statements and religiosity were the most consistent predictors of greater use of, perceived effectiveness of, and a willingness to spend more money on EOs," write the researchers in their study.
Used in perfumes, massages and aromatherapy, essential oils generate billions of dollars in sales in the US each year, and are sometimes applied as treatments for ailments or as ways of enhancing mood (though the scientific evidence for any sort of health benefits is thin at best).
Here, the researchers tracked attitudes towards essential oils against three things: the big five personality traits; something the psychologists referred to as 'bullshit receptivity'; and the need for cognition (NFC) – the extent to which people are inclined to engage their brains.
Overall, 66 percent of the respondents used essential oils, with women more likely than men to be fans of these mixtures. While there was no clear correlation between personality traits or NFC and EO use, those with a high bullshit receptivity were 70 percent more likely to use essential oils and find them effective.
"Of all the personality and personal variables we looked at, being high in receptivity to bullshit was the most consistent predictor," psychologist and lead researcher William Chopik, from Michigan State University, told Eric W. Dolan at PsyPost.
"Bullshit receptivity reflects people's willingness to endorse meaningless statements as meaningful."
One of the sample statements in the experiment was "as you self-actualise, you will enter into infinite empathy that transcends understanding" – if you have a high bullshit receptivity, you're more likely to see that statement as profound rather than nonsense.
People less able to spot and recognise bullshit were more likely to think that EOs would improve friendships, boost spirituality and heal health issues, even if the oils weren't specifically marketed to cover those areas.
What's not clear yet is why this is the case – the essential oil believers could be taking the claims made about these concoctions at face value perhaps, or maybe somehow tricking themselves into thinking the benefits are actually real.
But it's something worth looking into further, given the huge popularity of essential oils, and the increase in people using them – sometimes to the extent they poison themselves.
"The essential oils industry is an enormous one," Chopik told PsyPost. "It is very popular among people and makes a number of claims about the mental and physical health benefits that they bring."
"We were more interested in who is the typical consumer of essential oils? Who thinks that they are most beneficial? And who spends the most money on them? To our surprise, no studies had really looked at these factors."
The research has been published in PLOS One.