It's likely then, that those attempting to sound credible, but lacking capability, may engage in the ancient art of bullshitting. And lest you think this is a crude, populist criticism, let me tell you that the term "bullshit" has been clearly defined, and is the subject of considerable academic study. It's been described as - verbal statements designed to impress, without any direct concern for truth (Frankfurt 2009). And in some ways it’s worse than lying. For when someone lies, they are trying to misdirect their audience to a conclusion that is false. The liar knows where the truth is and constructs a narrative plausible enough to steer their audience away from it. But when someone bullshits little of the liar’s care or craftsmanship exists. Lying involves skilled malevolence, whereas bullshit demands nothing other than incompetence.
So, what does it say about us, as potential consumers of said bullshit?Well, it seems that some of us are more susceptible to bullshit than others. In a recent study (Bainbridge et al. 2019), it was found that those high in facets of the personality trait openness were more likely to be influenced by bullshit than others. Openness is one of the traits in the Big Five model of personality (Costa and McCrae 1992), along with conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism or susceptibility to negative emotion. Openness is correlated with intelligence, and for example covers a preference for cognition, creativity, ideas, the artistic and imagination. These components of trait openness are called facets and it appears that they can be arranged on an openness /intellect continuum between for example need for cognition at one end, to openness to fantasy and the paranormal at the other (DeYoung et al. 2012). It’s at that the opposite end to cognition where a tendency to see patterns where none exist, called apophenia exists. And that’s where the bullshit comes in. Unfortunately, some people report high scores in apophenia, and so are more likely to believe bullshit than others.
Fear not though, those who scored highly at the other end of the openness / intellect were much more sceptical of bullshit than others. So, if you’re asking “… is it just me, or is that bullshit?” the answer is – it depends on whose company you’re in at the time. If you’re with a group that is highly analytical and dare I say intelligent, then – no, it’s probably not just you, they’ll have picked up on it too. If on the other hand, those around you score highly on apophenia, then – yes, it’s probably just you, but it’s just as likely to be bullshit nonetheless.
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Bainbridge, T.F., Quinlan, J.A., Mar, R.A., Smillie, L.D. andFajkowska, M. (2019) 'Openness/intellect and susceptibility to pseudo–profoundbullshit: A replication and extension', Europeanjournal of personality, 33(1), 72-88.
Costa, P.T. and McCrae, R.R. (1992) 'Normal personality assessmentin clinical practice: The NEO Personality Inventory', Psychological assessment, 4(1), 5.
DeYoung, C.G., Grazioplene, R.G. and Peterson, J.B. (2012) 'Frommadness to genius: The Openness/Intellect trait domain as a paradoxicalsimplex', Journal of Research inPersonality, 46(1), 63-78.
Frankfurt, H.G. (2009) Onbullshit, Princeton University Press.
Grant, A.M. (2014) 'Autonomy support, relationship satisfaction andgoal focus in the coach–coachee relationship: which best predicts coachingsuccess?', Coaching: An InternationalJournal of Theory, Research and Practice, 7(1), 18-38.
Sherman, S. and Freas, A. (2004) 'The wild west of executivecoaching', Harvard business review,82(11), 82-93.
Conor is the founding partner of the boutique project governance advisory practice, Sein. With over 25 years complex program delivery experience and informed by the latest findings in the behavioural sciences, he helps projects make better decisions.