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Bullibility and the Cult of Wellness

Donate Not only is the entire wellness industry BS, it exists because of people who are especially gullible.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Consumer Ripoffs, Fads, Health

Skeptoid Podcast #944
July 9, 2024
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Bullibility and the Cult of Wellness

First off, you're asking what this word bullibility means. It is a portmanteau of two words, the first of which begins with bull and is often abbreviated BS, and gullibility. Coined by Petrocelli et. al. in a 2024 publication, bullibility refers to a person's predisposition to gullibly believe in any random BS that comes along. The TikTok generation, for example, has high bullibility. Today we're going to explore the role bullibility plays in converting so many people into members of what has become essentially a cult: wellness culture.

The #1 absolutely critical thing to be clear about in this episode is the unambiguous distinction between healthcare and wellness. They are two unrelated industries, though both often borrow language from the other for marketing purposes — and it's important to be aware of that. Healthcare is the business of treating illness, but the wellness industry treats nothing. Its customers are already healthy — health being defined as the absence of disease — and instead it sells the promise of becoming healthier than healthy. There is always one more wellness fad you can buy into: the whole industry leverages the practices and precepts of New Age, eastern mysticism, and western esotericism to market and sell the commercial products of the organic food industry, alternative medicine, superfoods, and services like sound healing, yoga instruction, guided mindfulness, and countless others. It's so broad there is a product or service for anyone — a gateway to bring any new recruit into the cult. Whether you innocently buy a superfood fruit juice at the market or sign up for a Kambo workshop in Silicon Valley, congratulations, you've just taken your first step into the cult of wellness.

This breadth of products not only drives industry growth, it is massively profitable. According to a 2024 report from McKinsey & Company, a multinational management consulting firm, wellness is a $1.8 trillion dollar industry worldwide, with $480 billion of those dollars forked over by wellness customers in the United States last year alone. Make no mistake: wellness is an industry.

Several episodes ago we discussed conspirituality, the convergence of conspiracy theory culture and New Age spirituality. Conspirituality has played a significant role in the emergence of wellness culture too. People have looked at the worst parts of American healthcare — the enormous expense and profitability; the difficulty of getting in to see specialists; the need to get referrals and all the delays; and of course, the high cost of prescription drugs — and so a lot of people have grown disillusioned with mainstream medicine. They tend to embrace the Big Pharma conspiracies, and they find themselves very accepting of alternative systems. Wellness culture offers solutions to all of this: the promise that you don't need mainstream medicine, and all the spirituality you can shake a stick at and more.

Why the spirituality? Participation in organized religion has dropped sharply over the past 30 years, from around two thirds of Americans to fewer than half. But their thirst for spirituality has not. People have just found other outlets for it, thus the rise of the phrase "spiritual but not religious."

And so we find ourselves with a large population of people who crave alternative medicine and new ways to practice spirituality, with a strong, conspiracy theory-driven distrust of mainstream science-based options.

The interesting paper on bullibility mentioned earlier also found another factor that makes people more susceptible to wellness culture: vulnerability to pseudo-profound BS (there's that clean-tagged abbreviation again — to the journals' credit, they all just include the full word now).

The term pseudo-profound BS was coined in a famous 2015 paper, and refers to "buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., 'Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena')" — and of course, the research included plenty of pseudo-profound BS drawn directly from Deepak Chopra's tweets. What they found was that people with a tendency to believe in weird stuff like the paranormal were more likely to judge pseudo-profound BS to be profound and deeply meaningful, when in fact it had no meaning at all. In the language of the later paper, such people are said to be bullible: gullible to BS.

Taking it all into account, research to date supports a number of general observations about people who are into wellness culture:

  • They are more likely to identify as spiritual than as religious.

  • They are more likely to find Deepak Chopra-style nonsense profound.

  • They are more likely to embrace false conspiracy theories toward the institutions for which they've found alternatives, such as psychology and science-based medicine.

  • They are more likely to accept false claims on the Internet as true.

  • They are more likely to reject professionals with legitimate accredited degrees in favor of people with self-declared qualifications that are legally and medically meaningless (such as guru, coach, shaman, nutritionist, influencer, healer, master, guide, advisor, practitioner, teacher, etc.).

  • They are more likely to buy produce sold under the organic label.

  • And of course, they are more likely to engage in more of the activities found in wellness culture: the books, seminars, products, retreats, and all the countless practices and services sold and guided by the people with all those self-declared titles. And they do so to the tune of $1,800,000,000,000 a year.

Now a lot of this sounds unkind, like we're just here to be cynical and to make fun of weirdos. That would be a mistake, because it would be to completely miss the point. None of the causes that led people to become bullible are unreasonable to any really serious degree. Whatever their beliefs might be, their expenditure of that much money is because they are victims of highly targeted and highly effective marketing by the people who sell these things. If we must point a finger of blame, point it at those who have enriched themselves at the expense of the bullible — few more so than Deepak Chopra himself and salespeople like Gwyneth Paltrow.

Speaking about Gwyneth Paltrow, an extraordinarily charitable view of her could cast her as a victim too — at least insofar as how she got her start. Paltrow's case is discussed in a 2023 book, The Wellness Trap, by Christy Harrison. This book focuses mainly on the dietary prescriptives of wellness, which tend to cast all foods as either poisonous or magically health-inducing, when the simple fact is that any food can be part of a healthy or an unhealthy diet. Wellness would have you abandon many perfectly fine food products in favor of expensive organic or "superfood" alternatives. Paltrow's wellness company Goop has (deservedly) long been in the crosshairs of skeptics — and of the Federal Trade Commission — for selling worthless snake oil products to members of the wellness cult with promises of magically beneficial results. Harrison, however, persuasively argues that Paltrow may never have gotten to that point if it wasn't for the pressures she was under herself. When she founded Goop she was already an A-list actor in Hollywood, having just played in the first Iron Man movie. The pressures on someone in her position at the time are immense. Be skinny. Look young. Be energetic. And also, be skinny, if we didn't already mention that. It's an edict that most of us don't fulfill, and as a woman in Hollywood, you have to or your career is done. It's an absurdly unfair pressure. In that context, we should not find fault with any young woman who turned to the wellness community in a desperate hunt to be "acceptable" according to the demands of her industry. But let us not get sidetracked talking about Gwyneth Paltrow specifically, the point being that at some level she was a victim of the cult; so we can easily see that anyone less famous and successful as her, but still spending money, is absolutely a victim.

I've been throwing around the term "cult" a lot, and it's fair for me to justify that. Here is a list of the predominant characteristics of wellness culture, and each describes cults as well:

  1. Charismatic Leaders. Wellness is driven largely by social media influencers, charismatic individuals who promote their personal philosophies and products as pathways to health and enlightenment. These leaders often build devoted followings.

  2. Exclusive Knowledge. The wellness industry delivers knowledge (often framed as "secret" or "exclusive") about health, diet, and lifestyle that is not recognized or endorsed by mainstream science or medicine.

  3. Us vs. Them Mentality. There can be an adversarial mentality where adherents believe they are more enlightened or healthier than those who do not follow their practices. This can create a strong in-group identity that isolates members from broader society.

  4. High Costs. Participation in wellness programs often involves expensive products, courses, seminars, and retreats, which can be financially out of reach for many people. The high costs can contribute to the perception of exclusivity and commitment.

  5. Promises of Transformation. The wellness industry often promises profound personal transformation or healing, which can be very appealing; especially to those left feeling disillusioned by traditional healthcare.

  6. Questionable Claims and Practice. Many wellness practices are based on pseudoscience and make unverified or false health claims, which can be harmful or misleading.

  7. Social Pressure and Testimonials. The industry often uses testimonials and peer pressure as tools for recruitment and retention, emphasizing personal stories of success and transformation without substantial scientific backing.

If those seven points don't describe a cult mentality, I don't know what does.

Wellness gurus will be quick to counter that not everything they prescribe is pseudoscience. They also recommend relaxation, stress reduction, going for a walk, eating more fruit and vegetables, getting a good night's sleep — then maybe they'll accuse us of claiming those are pseudoscience too. No. They're also not wellness. Everyone recommends those things, especially every medical doctor; they're simply good common sense, and wellness gurus cannot claim ownership of them. Those are already yours, you don't need to pay anyone for them.

So don't be a bullible conspiritualist. And if you know someone who is, do your best to guide them away, though that can often be a daunting and thankless task. For some suggestions on how best to do that, I recommend Skeptoid #187, "Emergency Handbook: What to Do When a Friend Loves Woo". The wellness industry is just like so many other brands of snake oil: a magically easy solution to a complicated problem, yours for just a few charges to your credit card.

And finally, an interesting side note: the word "gullible" is actually not in the dictionary.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Bullibility and the Cult of Wellness." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 9 Jul 2024. Web. 18 Jul 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4944>

 

References & Further Reading

Callaghan, S., Doner, H., Medalsy, J., Pione, A., Teichner, W. The trends defining the $1.8 trillion global wellness market in 2024. New York: McKinsey & Company, 2024.

Good, C. Relax and Enjoy Your Food. Seattle: Kindle KDP, 2020.

Harrison, C. The Wellness Trap: Break free from diet culture, disinformation, and dubious diagnoses. New York: Little Brown Spark, 2023.

Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J., Barr, N., Koehler, D., Fugelsang, J. "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit." Judgment and Decision Making. 1 Nov. 2015, Volume 10, Number 6: 549-563.

Petrocelli, J., Curran, J., Stall, L. "Bullshit can be harmful to your health: Bullibility as a precursor to poor decision–making." Current Opinion in Psychology. 1 Feb. 2024, Number 55: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2023.101769.

Raphael, R. The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, gurus, Goop, and the false promise of self-care. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2022.

 

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