BS Indicator

by Ron Potter

I’ve started reading a book titled The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit.  I started reading it just because it sounded like a fun read (my warped sense of humor, I guess).  However, once I started to read the research and science behind it, the topic is fascinating.

The Causes and Consequences of B.S.

John Petrocelli is a social psychologist and professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, who actually studies this issue.  How fun would that be?

He finds that people tend to spread B.S. when they feel obligated to have an opinion about something they know little about—and when they feel they aren’t going to be challenged.  The Wall Street Journal did a fascinating interview with Dr. Potrocelli.  A couple of findings I found interesting were:

  • B.S. is when someone communicates something with little regard for the truth, genuine evidence, or established knowledge.
  • Liars actually know and care about the truth. They need to know the truth so they can distract you from it. The BS’er not only doesn’t know the truth, they don’t care about it.
  • One reason people BS is simply the obligation to have an opinion. People feel they have to have an opinion about everything.  They tell each other what they want to hear to avoid conflict or hurt feelings.

Obligation to Have an Opinion

Why do we feel we need to have an opinion?  We could just as easily remain silent or openly indicate that we don’t have an opinion on a particular.  Even better, if we were to indicate that we haven’t formed an opinion because we don’t know all the facts and haven’t yet figured out the truth.

The WSJ indicates that the main reason people BS is to promote one’s status—to get ahead, appear knowledgeable, competent, skilled, or admired.  Unless these BS’ers are challenged, it can lead to some of these consequences but when challenged properly, their BS is quickly exposed and leads to the failure of accomplishing any of those goals.

Detecting BS

Our ability to detect BS has been dulled through this time of isolation.  We’ve lost some of our natural ability to detect.  The WSJ article points out a couple of great questions that we can ask to retune our BS detector.

  • Ask people to clarify, they’ll often take a step back and think. And a lot of times, they’ll dial back their claim. So the first question is: “What? What are you saying?”
  • “How? How do you know that’s true? How did you come to that conclusion?”  We have often been taught to ask the “Why” question first.  However, Dr. Petrocelli suggests that the “Why” is not a good question to ask. That leads people into the abstract, to talk about their values and the heady stuff. The “how” question gets them down to the concrete, real-world, practical things that we would call evidence.
  • The other question should be: “Have you ever considered any alternatives?” The reason for this question is that if they say no, you know they probably haven’t thought through the thing very well.

The Power of Detecting BS

Something on your radar just pinged and you’re not sure if this person is telling you the truth or just BSing.  Or you might simply be ignorant of the situation, the facts, and the truth.  In either case, asking the questions above will help you, your team, and your leadership be better at what you’re trying to accomplish.  Become a good BS detector simply by keeping your radar up and asking the right questions.

You’ll be thought of as a solid citizen and a critical thinker.  Don’t accept or spew BS.

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