What a Bunch of Bull: The Art and Science of BS
The psychological and personality correlates of bullshitting
Posted June 30, 2018
We’ve all come across them – that one person who boasts and over-exaggerates every story. They pop into your water-cooler conversations with their own anecdotes, ones that somehow outdo yours in every way possible. They’ve met celebrities, gone on ridiculous adventures, somehow know everything about every possible topic, but you know deep down it’s all a bunch of BS.
Bullshitting is defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt as “communicating with little to no concern for evidence or truth”. And of all the BSing that goes on, there’s no worse place for it to happen than in the workplace. You want to be surrounded by co-workers who are giving you cold, hard facts with evidence, not those who invent stories. The latter lowers your credibility just by association. It undermines trust and results in an unsettling workplace.
It’s no secret that managers are more likely to reward those who are full of flattery. Research has shown that these people strategically make others feel important. They observe emotions and wait until co-workers or supervisors are in the “right mood” to seek rewards.
Imagine a scenario where you’re holding a discussion with fellow co-workers. Let’s say you’re discussing a topic that few are knowledgeable about. People feel the need to match up to social norms - they feel obligated to provide their opinion. They’re more likely to engage in bullshitting in this case, coming up with some sort of exaggeration to please you. This kind of behavior is self-enhancing, especially if you fall for it.
An empirical study on BS
A recent study was done at Wake Forest University that looked into the antecedents of bullshitting. John Petrocelli and team ran a series of experiments that examined the idea of a person having i) too little, ii) adequate, or iii) too much topic knowledge, and the extent to which they bullshitted.
The first experiment explored the role of knowledge. These go back to situations where one knows nothing, or too much about a topic. The experiment also looked at the obligation to express an opinion. Finally, they looked at the ease of bullshitting. If you know you’re talking to a gullible person, are you more likely to bullshit? Are the people around you less-informed about something? Is there an easy way to enhance yourself, and make yourself seem more knowledgeable?
Half of the participants in this study learned about the personality of an individual. They then considered the individual's behavior and listed their thoughts. Some participants were told that the thoughts would be scored for accuracy by people who knew the individual well. This condition was randomly assigned to participants.
There were also participants were not obligated to share their thoughts. Those who listed their thoughts were asked to consider each thought, in regard to how concerned they were with genuine evidence.
The results of this first experiment showed that people would bullshit in two main scenarios: If they expected to get away with it; and if they needed to give their opinion on something – regardless of how knowledgeable they were on the topic.
The second experiment observed how social accountability affects bullshitting. Participants reported their attitudes on social issues and were randomly assigned to one of four accountability conditions. In three of these conditions, participants believed they would have to justify their opinions to a sociology professor. Other participants were not exposed to this condition. All participants were asked to list their thoughts on the three issues.
The results of this second experiment support the initial predictions: People were more likely to bullshit when it seemed easier to do so – that is, when they thought they weren’t being held accountable for what they were saying. When they were expected to justify themselves in front of someone, they refrained from bullshitting.
Here's how to avoid falling for bullshit
Taking these results into account, here are tips to to sift through all the BS out there.
Actively ask for evidence:
Once you start asking people for proof behind their claims, you can assess people’s genuineness. Those who have no proof, or only provide anecdotal evidence, will be the ones who are more likely to bullshit. Those who possess a good amount of knowledge on something will provide multiple perspectives and evidence. Meaning, if a person is adamant on only give one side of a story – be wary. Improve on your vetting process by taking the time to research what others around you say, specifically when they make big claims.
Don't forget about the small claims:
Water-cooler conversations may seem like nothing of importance, but they can be useful in detecting bullshit. If a small group of you are discussing something that most people don’t not have an informed opinion on, it’s easier for one to get away with bullshitting. So pay attention to your daily conversations – does it seem like someone is making an over-exaggerated claim? Do they always know more when everyone else knows less? Again – ask for evidence.
Look for exaggerations:
These will mostly be present in stories people tell. In this case, it’s difficult to ask for evidence – it’s a story from their personal life, and while they may be telling it to impress you, you still have to be cautious. The less substance you give to personal stories that seem too good to be true, the better you’ll get at spotting bullshit.
Observe your own reactions:
People who get away with bullshitting have an easier time doing so when consorting with someone who’s gullible. Take some time to observe yourself and see if you find yourself blindly taking everyone’s word as the truth. Stay vigilant and go back to seeking evidence. This is the key to neutralizing the effects of the bullshitter.
Give substance to a limited number of ideas:
This idea comes from André Spicer, a professor of Organizational Behaviour at Cass Business School. He wrote an article on the role of bullshit in organizations, and included a bit of advice. This goes back to the previous point. If you take everything at face value, you continue to be gullible. Your workplace “loses sight” of its primary task and again, you lower the level of trust in your workplace. By only giving substance to a limited number of ideas, you have more time and energy to look into evidence, and you may become a more critical, careful thinker.
Nick is a performance psychologist offering tactical advice for peak performers: all science, no BS.
Petrocelli, J. V. (2018). Antecedents of bullshitting. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 249-258,