I have a friend who is very adept at having an opinion about something he knows little about. He delivers his opinion with authority, but no evidence. When he goes on about something, my husband refers to it as an anal sphincter extraction.
We’ve laughed about that for years. I just recently learned that it’s a real thing. Social psychologist and professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. John Petrocelli has written a book about it.
Dr. Petrocelli researches the causes and consequences of B.S. to help us improve our ability to detect and dispose of it. His studies reveal that people tend to spread B.S. when they feel obligated to have an opinion about something they know little about and feel they won’t be challenged on it.
“The Life-changing Science of Detecting Bullshit” is a treasure. We’ve been cooped up for so long that many of us have rusty B.S. detection skills. From this book we can learn when we are susceptible to it and how to confront it.
B.S. is someone intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously, communicating something with little regard for the truth, genuine evidence or established knowledge. It’s often characterized, but not limited to, using rhetorical strategies designed to disregard truth, evidence, and/or established knowledge, such as exaggerating or embellishing ones knowledge, competence or skills in a particular area or talking about things of which one knows nothing about in order to impress, fit in, influence or persuade others.
B.S. is intentional usually if someone is trying impress, persuade, embellish, confuse or hide the fact they don’t know what they’re talking about. Dr. Petrocelli thinks most people do it unintentionally. They say whatever comes to mind and are never held accountable It’s a quick, fast, and loose way of communicating.
Bullshitting Isn’t Lying
The most important distinction between B.S.ers and liars is their motivations. They may say the very same things. However, the liar does whatever he can to hide the truth. To do it successfully, the liar distorts his portrayal of reality and then must remember the lie. The B.S.er doesn’t share this burden because most often he believes his own B.S.
Polishing the Detection Skills
It’s hard to detect unless it doesn’t align with your beliefs. If you don’t think it’s true, you begin to ask questions.
And therein lies the key. Ask questions. Take a moment and process what the B.S.er is saying. Your goal is to get them to clarify the claim. So ask, “Is what you are saying x?” In this scenario they often dial back their claim.
The next question is “How? How do you know that’s true? How did you come to that conclusion?” This is often the first time the person has surveyed the available evidence. Most of the time, they haven’t thought their claim through and just like the sound of it!
Avoid asking “Why?” A “why” question lets people wander into the abstract. B.S.ers love to use anecdotal evidence. The “how” question gets them to identify concrete, provable evidence.
Another way to detect B.S. is to look for what Dr. Petrocelli calls pseudo-profound proverbial clichés. The statements people use as if they are logic incarnate. Ask yourself it the person is using jargon, or unclear language.
When it’s all said and done, you don’t have to accuse the person of being a B.S.er. What you really want to do is cause the person to rethink or reason.