Is B.S. One of the Greatest Barriers to Learning?
What a new line of research says about obscuring truth.
Posted February 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
One of my biggest pet peeves is being in meetings or venues where everyone is acting like they have all the answers—whether because they believe they do or they are performing like they do.
This is particularly true, from my experience, in consulting contexts, where there is a high performative aspect to presenting and speaking. In Organizational Learning and Performance, I draw upon research about having a performance-prove orientation, where you’re mostly concerned about appearing as if you have all the answers. This is in contrast to a learning orientation where you are willing to ask questions and probe what you know and don’t know.
To illustrate a performance-prove orientation, I often use a quote from Steve Levitt, of Freakonomics fame:
“What I’ve found in business is that almost no one will ever admit to not knowing the answer to a question. So even if they absolutely have no idea what the answer is, if it’s within their realm of expertise, faking is just an important part. I really have come to believe teaching MBAs that one of the most important things you learn as an MBA is how to pretend you know the answer to any question even though you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. And I’ve found it’s really one of the most destructive factors in business—is that everyone masquerades like they know the answer and no one will ever admit they don’t know the answer, and it makes it almost impossible to learn.”
But, to my surprise, I recently came across research that more precisely diagnoses the issue: “pseudo-profound bullshit.”
I hadn’t been aware that B.S. had a respectable line of research for all these years.
As Pennycook and colleagues (2015) describe in the opening to their article in Judgment and Decision Making, “the philosopher Frankfurt (2005) defines bullshit as something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truth” (p. 549).
The authors continue with several statements, such as:
- “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”
As the authors say, “Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure” (p. 549).
In contrast to Frankfurt, they argue that “pseudo-profound bullshit betrays a concern for verisimilitude or truthiness.” And their prefix of profound “reveals an important defining characteristic of bullshit (in general): that it attempts to impress rather than to inform; to be engaging rather than instructive” (p. 550).
To research the topic, Pennycook and colleagues created a B.S. Receptivity Scale which lists 10 meaningless statements such as:
- “The future explains irrational facts.”
- “Consciousness consists of frequencies of quantum energy. ‘Quantum’ means an unveiling of the unrestricted.”
Participants rated how profound these statements were on a scale of one to five. They found that participants who scored higher on the Cognitive Reflection Test (a measure of one’s willingness to question one’s intuitive responses), were more likely to see B.S. for what it is.
In more recent research, a Bullshitting Frequency Scale was developed to measure the act of bullshitting rather than your receptivity to it (Littrell, Risko, & Fugelsang, 2021). The researchers, citing the philosopher Gerald Cohen (2013), describe how “the aim of some bullshitters is to impress using discourse constructed with ‘unclarifiable unclarity’; that is, relying on vacuous, confusing buzzwords which obscure that the statements, while superficially impressive, contain no discernible meaning” (p. 249). In their research, Littrell et al. (2021) found that bullshitting frequency is negatively correlated with honesty, sincerity, and self-worth.
Unfortunately, B.S. is all too common in organizations where a desire to impress can lead us to speak in ways that obscure a deeper understanding of an issue. This combines with an understandable desire among listeners to not ask questions for the risk of appearing to be the only one that doesn’t get it. The result is one of the greatest barriers to learning in organizations.
There aren’t simple answers to counteract B.S., but you can start by asking questions to help understand issues (you might uncover that others have similar questions). If you are in a position to set norms for your team or organization, you can highlight behaviors such a being candid or intellectually humble (being willing to admit what you know and don’t know). Or you can more aggressively aim to “forgo B.S.” in a more forthright attempt to learn and address issues you are facing.
For the moment, at least, take heart that there is a group of dedicated researchers shedding light on the opaque phenomenon of bullshit.
Cohen, G. A. (2013). Complete bullshit. In M. Otsuka (Ed.), Finding oneself in the other (pp. 94–114). Princeton University Press.
Frankfurt, H. G. (2005). On bullshit. Princeton University Press.
Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Barr, N., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, 10(6), 549-563.
Levitt, S. (2012, January 5). Why is “I don’t know” so hard to say? Freakonomics Radio [Audio Podcast] Retrieved from http://freakonomics.com
Littrell, S., Risko, E. F., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2021). The bullshitting frequency scale: Development and psychometric properties. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60, 248-270.