Bullshitting: Lessons from the Masters

How the great bullshitters pull it off.

Posted May 15, 2009

The patron saint of these tipsters was Harry Markopolos, who began warning regulators about Madoff in 1999. Markopolos testified before Congress: "The SEC was never capable of catching Mr. Madoff. He could have gone to $100 billion. It took me about five minutes to figure out he was a fraud."

Without enumerating all 29 red flags Markopolos identified in a 2005 memo to the SEC deducing that Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme (perhaps its title, "The World's Largest Hedge Fund is a Fraud," was too subtle), we can readily see the indisputable indicators of Madoff's fakery. But, more important, we can gain insight into his genius as a bullshitter.

Among the clear signs of fraud were the Madoff fund's unbelievably positive, and consistent, returns despite market downturns; the lack of oversight of his performance and operations by any independent auditors; the opaqueness - and unbelievability - of his claims about his investment strategy; the secrecy he insisted on from third parties; etc.

But what is most interesting to psychologists in Markopolos' memo is the last, 29th red flag: Madoff would tell any new investor that, although he was so successful his fund was closed to all but a few fortunate insiders, he would make an exception for that lucky individual. Agents for Madoff proudly repeated this preposterous claim as a sign of how well connected they were - "I'm a special friend of Bernie's."

Now, we are getting to the heart of what makes for a master bullshitter. Time and again, SEC regulators showed up at Madoff's offices and conducted long interviews with him in which he completely snowed them, when a simple examination of relevant documents would indicate they were pure fabrications.

In fact, it isn't hard to pull this kind of deception off if you just follow a few simple rules.  This list is generated from peak bullshitting performers like Madoff, alleged fellow Ponzi schemer Sir R. Allen Stanford (whom the SEC had been investigating for four years but only pulled the plug on after the Madoff scandal broke), and - God bless him - Donald Trump*.

1. Always remember - people are afraid to challenge you. Both because it violates social propriety, and because of their fears that their own secrets will be found out, people don't question others to their face. So simply count on being allowed to mouth off and make outrageous claims with no fear of being contradicted - or with objectors themselves facing ostracism.

2. Point to your legitimate successes or bona fides. Stanford was a genuine knight (mediated by Antiguan authorities). Madoff had been president of the NASDAQ stock exchange's board of directors. There are big buildings with Trump's name gaudily plastered all over them.  So simply trot out your past successes (magnified as much as possible) at every opportunity, and add on whatever bullshit you wish.

3. Act arrogant - keep it up. Although arrogance might seem to work against you by offending people, it is the supreme intimidation technique - people are readily cowed when someone acts like he is better, smarter, more powerful than they are (ergo, the Donald Trump phenomenon). The only danger is if you act modestly or question yourself, because people WILL attack weakness. In fact, even when you are being arrested (as in Stanford's case), attack your accusers.

4. Claim esoteric knowledge or techniques. It doesn't matter if the formula you use to explain your success makes no sense - people aren't secure enough to challenge something they can't understand. In fact, it pays to make the secret to your success as incomprehensible as possible while linking it to something beyond questioning, like say relativity, quantum physics, evolution or, for the old fashioned, God.

5. Always delay the day of reckoning. Contrary to the idea that, if your are standing on a foundation of bullshit, you will being to sink, send questioners and doubters away. In the interim, they will become re-intimidated by how highly your bullshit is regarded. When they return (if they have the guts), simply go back to square one, making the same claims with the same evidence, and in the same arrogant, don't-question-me tone.

Follow these few simple rules of bullshitting, and your success is guaranteed!

Stanton Peele's new book (with Ilse Thompson), is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program. Follow his guided self-cure program at lifeprocessprogram.com

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* This post most assuredly does not claim that Donald Trump has ever committed fraud - only that he is America's premier bullshitter.  Further quotes from the bullshitting Zen master:

Daily News: “Donald Trump, wannabe President: I’ve sent investigators to Hawaii to look into Obama’s citizenship.” Fox News: “Trump Sends Investigators to Hawaii.” The Australian: “Donald Trump detectives delve into President Barack Obama’s birth.” Trump’s claim was also repeated by ABC and the New York Times and others.

How many investigators were there in the team, Donald?  Can we interview them?  What, exactly, did they discover?  

And, then:

Donald Trump began a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 10, 2011, by announcing that he is "thinking about" running for president. Too often, Trump said, successful people don't run for president because they don't want to be "scrutinized or abused." As a result, he said, we get presidents like Barack Obama.

"Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere," Trump said. "In fact, I'll go a step further: the people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don't know who he is. It's crazy."