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The Science of Bullshitting: Notes from a Research Field Frontier

Who would’ve thought there’s scientific literature on bullshitting? The discovery of obscure fields of research has fascinated me ever since I was accepted to MIT at the age of nine. By the time I graduated a year later, I had sold my business ideas of manufacturing electric cars and privatising space exploration to a friend for a symbolic dollar. Instead, I started a career in public relations, dedicating my life to telling bullshit stories.

The beginnings of the science of bullshitting can be traced back to 1986. When philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt wrote his seminal essay On Bullshit [affiliate link], which he went on to turn into a bestselling book of the same name. According to Frankfurt, the bullshitter:

is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

So in a sense, bullshitting is its own brand. A niche product characterised by an indifference to truth. I think that’s justification enough to understand, measure and predict the art of bullshitting. What do the latest studies say?

Are Bullshitters More Intelligent?

Our first study from May 2021 looked into Bullshit Ability as an Honest Signal of Intelligence. Canadian psychologists Martin Harry Turpin et al. asked participants to produce BS in the form of sound yet fake explanations for various concepts. These were then rated to calculate the producers’ “bullshit ability”. Researchers found:

that those more skilled in producing satisfying and seemingly accurate bullshit score higher on measures of cognitive ability and are perceived by others as more intelligent.

Not only that, Turpin et al. hypothesise that highly-skilled BS might serve the function of “navigating social systems”. The better your bullshit game, the more successful you are? Sounds like the foundation of Ricky Gervais’ career.

Can You Bullshit a Bullshitter?

Let’s turn to those at the receiving end of misleading information. Detecting deception and bullshit in particular can be a superpower. But are those regularly exhibiting a willful indifference to the truth more likely to sense it?

This study from February 2021 indicates that people who bullshit more often and for effect are more prone to being misled themselves. In their own words, the Canadian psychologists suggest:

that frequency of persuasive bullshitting (i.e., bullshitting intended to impress or persuade others) positively predicts susceptibility to various types of misleading information and that this association is robust to individual differences in cognitive ability and analytic cognitive style.

Further research even indicates a Dunning-Kruger-like effect in people who are more receptive to bullshit. Those who tend to fall for it, grossly misjudge their ability to detect BS. Canadian psychologists described this phenomenon as the “bullshit blind spot”.

How to Deal With Workplace Bullshit?

Finally, let’s take a look at a practical application of BS research. Suggesting that corporations are home to some of the world’s top-performing bullshitters is probably not a controversial idea. Luckily, Canadian researchers have provided organisations with a framework for dealing with bullshit in the workplace. In this 2020 paper, they suggest leaders can:

comprehend it, they can recognize it for what it is, they can act against it, and they can take steps to prevent it from happening in the future.

This so-called C.R.A.P. approach (I’m really not making this up) helps you distinguish between lying and bullshitting and discusses evidence-based strategies to cut through misleading information. It comes with a handy classification chart of different phenomena of misrepresentation; from “fake company slogans” to “Jargon bullshit”, to “bullshit jobs”.

The latter is a concept I’ve written about in Chmess: How to Spot a Bullshit Job. Sadly, bullshitting seems to be a welcome part of the fabric of some companies. This is why I share the authors’ subtle scepticism in an organisation’s willingness to run with a comprehensive no-BS approach.

The Future of Bullshitting

The papers have something in common. Yes, they’re all from Canada. But they also share an acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of bullshit in our society. It looks like the best bullshitters tend to be smart and socially skilled. At the same time, those who do it notoriously to impress people are much more likely to fall for it. But not to worry, a clandestine corporate bullshit task force might be onto them.

That’s reason enough to admit my little MIT story was BS. But I meant well. It’s a trick of the trade. Perhaps, more research needs to be done on bullshitting as a satirical and educational artform.