People are proud of their great BS detectors and critical of other people’s poor BS detectors, but if our detectors were really that great, we would recognize that BS isn’t just some pest that needs to be detected and exterminated. We actually love BS, just not the stinky kind that other people excrete at a cost to us.

We are all self-deceptive. We don’t mean to be – it’s true when we say, “Look I wouldn’t want to BS you.” We wouldn’t want to, but that doesn’t mean we don’t. We BS other people and ourselves when the alternative is facing some disappointing truth, some truth that means we have to engage in the hard work of rethinking things.

Faced with a choice between the humbling admission that we could do better and a little BS, we prefer the latter and often take it. We don’t mean to. We just do as a side-effect of seeking to maintain confidence, something we often want more than we want the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit we consume a fair amount of BS. Our self-esteem thrives on it. It’s the junk food we crave.

When we prefer it to reality, we don’t call it BS. We call it hope or faith, which makes it sound a whole lot sweeter. Rather than bending to reality, we hope that we can make reality bend to us. Rather than admit that there could be some evidence that works against our ambitions, we declare proud faith, and certainly not just that God will save us. We have faith in all sorts of things, a proud belief that no evidence can, should or will dash our hopes.

We cut corners. We sand away the rougher realities. We BS in little and big ways rather than imposing on ourselves the hard work of adjusting to discouraging aspects of reality. Sometimes it starts with lies we tell ourselves that we then have to defend by lying to others. Sometimes it starts with lies to others that we then have to defend to ourselves. Either way, we’re not really after better BS detectors, but selective ones, ones that demand the realities that support our confidence and block the realities that disturb our confidence. And there’s no clearer sign that surer sign that we want a selective BS detector than false claims that we object to all BS, when really we welcome flattering BS. That’s BS bulimia: Outwardly we claim to demand the truth and binge on BS when no one is looking.

We’re not just self-deceptive. We’re meta-self-deceptive, deceptive about our tendency toward self-deception. We count ourselves as exceptionally realistic, which is one of the most unrealistic things we can say about ourselves. We lie about our capacity to lie. We declare that we have exceptional integrity, not because we’re in a position to know or because we’ve thought a lot about what it would take to have exceptional integrity, but because it sounds good; it builds our confidence. We say “I don’t play games,” but our evidence for that claim is just that we reject other people’s game-playing at our expense and have some abstract appreciation for the moral cost of game-playing.

We cut our connection to the most disappointing truth of all, the truth that we don’t just love the truth. Truth doesn’t just set us free but burdens us with the hard work of adjusting still more to reality. That’s what’s meant by, “you can’t handle the truth.” It means we’re unwilling to trade a comforting dollop of BS for a disappointing ration of truth.

So how do we get beyond our false claim that we just want to detect and eliminate BS? How do we put ourselves on a real BS diet, cutting back on the flattering BS?

Some say with stronger moral conviction. Resolve to stay away from BS because it’s morally wrong. For the BS bulimic, that’s like insisting more firmly to others that you don’t like BS.

I don’t think the moral approach works. You’ll still binge on it when you can get away with it. I think the moral approach to BS dieting is as reliable as trying to stick to a diet because it would be the morally right thing to do. I think the practical approach is more reliable:

  1. Admit that you are no exception. We all self-deceive. It’s even good that we do. Confidence is important. What’s not healthy is claiming that you don’t; in other words, committing to meta-self-deception, deceiving yourself about your tendency to deceive.
  2. Remember what it costs you personally to gorge on flattering BS. It’s bad for your long-term personal happiness.  Aim to reduce your intake of flattering BS for selfish reasons. Flattering BS is a devil’s bargain: enjoy now; pay later.
  3. As with dieting, pay attention to the company you keep. If you surround yourself with flatterers and people who agree with you about everything, you’re going to have a hard time cutting back.
  4. Pay attention to your triggers to binge. People are more likely to rationalize bingeing on BS if their livelihoods depend on it. People consume and dish out BS to keep the people they depend upon happy. If you have to do a lot of that, it’s going to cut deep into your tolerance for truth.
  5. Having admitted that you’re no exception to the universal human appetite for BS, you’ll be better able to manage your intake, pursuing what I call “optimal illusion,” kidding yourself where it helps and not where it hurts. Optimal illusion is like a managed diet. If you like rich, sweet, fattening foods, you don’t have to give them up, you just have to cut back or risk serious health effects. The same goes for your appetite for BS.
  6. Keep honing that BS detector of yours, but with a difference. In general, people are glad to study critical thinking because it arms them against other people’s frustrating BS. They declare themselves master BS detectors and go out to police all the BS that they don’t like. That’s like a binger who demands that other people diet. Paradoxically, this approach to critical thinking makes you worse, not better, at detecting your own BS. It supports your meta-self-deception: “Me? Self-deceive? I wouldn’t do that. After all, I’ve studied critical thinking.” If you really want to be a master BS detector, you have to apply critical thinking even-handedly. Every time you learn a new critical thinking tool, apply it to yourself. Don’t just think critically about other people’s frustrating BS. Cultivate the capacity to push the plate away when it’s heaped up with your own lusty servings of BS as well.


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