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SEIZE THE FOMENT

Are you inadvertently encouraging your colleagues to bullshit you?

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney at the World Economic Forum in Davos
Reuters/Denis Balibouse
Tell it to me straight.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

We like to see our places of work as islands of rational thinking—all the more important within a larger culture that has normalized dangerous bullshit in the political realm and celebrates quasi-factual bluster as a form of entertainment. But let’s be real. People at work stretch the truth or play off weak-to-no evidence, too.

Whether they’re making a case for a new project, analyzing what went wrong with a campaign, deciding on a new policy—basically speaking in almost any meeting—they make shit up. (As a reminder, bullshit is distinct from lying in that liars are trying to hide the truth, and bullshitters may or may not know what the truth is.)

The thing is, you and your officemates are almost certainly complicit in this behavior, if you accept the findings from a new study, “Antecedents of Bullshit,” published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This study is not the first academic treatment of bullshit. But according to its author, John Petrocelli, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, it is the first serious inquiry into the conditions that encourage people to bullshit—defined here as “communications that result from little to no concern for truth, evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge”—and it has serious implications for workplaces.

Petrocelli’s study has two parts. First he ran an online experiment in which nearly 600 people were asked to carry out the same task: Read about a guy named “Jim” who had been a candidate for city council but dropped out of the race, and offer five possible reasons for his decision. To test who would bullshit, and when they were most prone to doing so, all of the participants were subjected to different conditions. Some were put under pressure to provide an opinion, and others were not. Some were informed that responses would be reviewed by people who knew Jim, others were not. And some had facts on hand about Jim, while others didn’t.

The results: People later self-reported bullshitting most about Jim when they felt pressure to provide an opinion and believed the audience didn’t know much about the candidate. Those who felt obliged to have an opinion bullshitted only to a slightly lesser degree when told the audience had some familiarity with Jim. And people who didn’t feel pressure to have an opinion and were told that the audience knew Jim were the people who bullshitted least.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, at least to those of us not studying the “science of bullshit,” as Petrocelli calls it, a majority of the participants who were under no pressure to offer their views nevertheless came up with opinions based on their imagination. They knew their audience didn’t know Jim, so they chanced it.

Next, Petrocelli asked 180 people to build an argument for or against controversial, complex issues, like capital punishment and affirmative action quotas, telling some participants that their responses would be read by an unidentified expert, and others that they’d be read by a sociology professor who was either sympathetic or, in a separate group, opposed to their positions.

Here, people in the first group, the ones told that a like-minded soul would be rating their arguments, were more likely to let loose with the BS than those who, presumably, feared the scrutiny of someone who disagreed.

So what does this tell us about how we might promote bullshit at work?

Encouraging opinions on everything invites bullshit

The first mistake we make is one we can do little about: We live in a modern, social media-saturated world, where the pressure is on to have an opinion, stat. And we bring that attitude into the workplace. As American philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote in his 1986 essay, “On Bullshit,” which later became a bestselling book, “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” And that was decades before Facebook or Twitter entered the scene.

Indeed, in Petrocelli’s study, the social cue to form an opinion was the most influential factor in sparking bullshit. Opinions alone are not bullshit, as Petrocelli clarifies in the paper, “as one’s beliefs and opinions are self-evident,” he says, “although one’s belief or opinion itself might be based on bullshit.”

And this is the problem. We know that most people’s beliefs can be borne of any number of biases that allow them to “know” things that aren’t always true —things they’ve heard repeated, or ideas that were presented by someone who seemed credible, or was even simply attractive. From these “facts,” not original research, we form opinions, and present an explanation as evidence. Others are persuaded by us, and the bullshit continues.

Allowing like-minded people to make decisions creates the right atmosphere for more bullshit

Previous research has shown that bullshit is fairly socially acceptable, even among relative strangers, Petrocelli points out. Researchers have found that bullshit does a lot of work to ease communication, helping people feel connected around an idea or identity, so maybe that’s why we excuse it. Frankfurt wrote, “We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire.”

Without question, lying can be a career-ending violation. But as the second half of Petrocelli’s study suggests, people expect bullshit to get a pass when friendly ears are listening, creating what Petrocelli calls a “bullshit-tolerant context.” Your likeminded allies who usually share the same attitudes as you probably won’t press you for higher quality information if you say something like, “This will credibly synthesize exceptional methods of empowerment.” (Thank you, corporate bullshit generator.) In fact, you might not even elicit an irritated shrug.

Add a deadline and you’re asking to be bamboozled 

When people feel pressed for time, they’re also less likely to feel motivated to look something up or do any fact-checking, Petrocelli explains. “All of the interest in evidence, the time spent deliberating declines,” he says. Because we’re task-oriented individuals, essentially, we’d rather bullshit and get the job done than linger long enough to analyze available data, or gather some.

“The way it usually works is someone comes up with an idea, and then a few people like it, and then you get people onboard, they think it sounds good, and ‘Yay, we’re making progress today. We’re heading in the right direction,'” he says, adding, “and then four or five months go by and they find it’s not working out.”

If your colleagues are not trained in the ways of polite debate, expect more baloney

In her Harvard commencement speech this month, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asked the graduating class to develop their bullshit detectors. “Be courageous enough to recognize those things that get in the way of telling the truth: the empty cleverness, the morally bankrupt irony, the desire to please, the deliberate obfuscation,” she said. Although her concern was connected to public debates, the same principles ought to apply in private ones, many of which can have ramifications far beyond what happens within one company.

Petrocelli warns, however, that we’ve lost this art. At one time, high school students were taught how to detect bullshit and enter debate with civility, and now those lessons are far less common, he argues. Even basic social skills, he feels, “are just kind of completely gone now.”

Without these skills, or without regular practice using them, people aren’t sure how or when to ask the tough questions.

If anyone is restricting access to data…

Finally, people who possess information are less likely to bullshit, which is why data has to be shared, says Petrocelli, and not stockpiled by one individual.

The upside of bullshit 

If there’s one thing bullshit allows for, it’s the quick and easy exchange of ideas. Brainstorming sessions would fall flat without the ability to suspend disbelief, as Stefano Forzi, an author for the philosophy blog Ribbonfarm, noted in a thoughtful essay making “an unapologetic case for bullshit.” He also introduces Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend’s concept of “epistemological anarchism,” writing:

“At its core lies the idea that we must be forgiving of the different sources and methods that have historically contributed to the growth of knowledge, and the progress made by humanity in its relentless search for truth. We cannot discount the value that religion, superstition, mythology and magic have brought to the process. Perhaps, we shouldn’t discount a priori the possibility that bullshit may also play a role.

In a corporation, bullshit frequently works, too. If you’re a branding consultant looking to land a contract with a boutique law firm in Houston, you call on management and tell them why theirs is the best boutique law firm in Houston. You engage in branding-speak like “value,” and “quality.” As a result, people at the law firm in fact may feel more confident, at least in the short term, research suggests.

Indeed, a little irrationality is necessary to make decisions in the real world, many great thinkers have argued.

But bumbling along with too little sustenance and facts can also cost a firm time and money, which at some point might even mean the difference between layoffs and new hires.

The solution is to nudge people toward adopting an evidence-based approach as part of an organization’s communication culture, says Petrocelli. Make requests for demonstrable truths the norm, rather than indulging in the habit of looking the other way, or perhaps snickering, when the bullshit flies.

“One of the things I want to do is blow up this BS enterprise and design an intervention for organizations to help reduce bullshit, because it’s just so insidious,” he tells Quartz.

His forthcoming research will delve into how to do that.

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