One of the worst feelings I can think of is knowing that you’ve let someone bullshit you.
We’ve all been there: talking to a boss or client or salesperson who is espousing information that you know is patently false, but you keep your mouth shut. The really maddening thing is that despite knowing that the person is bullshitting us, when we are talking to them, we almost always feel bad about calling them out. In other words, paradoxically, we seem to care more about the feelings of the person lying to us than about the consequences that not confronting their bullshit has on our lives.
I asked Carl Bergstrom, professor of biology at the University of Washington and owner of the website CallingBullshit.org, why this is. “This varies tremendously across cultural settings, but in many settings, it is hard to call someone out on their B.S. Calling someone out on B.S. is a forceful act and is often seen as disrespectful,” Bergstrom says.
However, he notes that it can be advantageous to learn to overcome this social norm. “One of the common habits of successful working teams is that their members learn to call B.S. on one another without disrespecting or perceiving disrespect. That allows the team to rapidly cut through mistaken arguments with a minimum of social friction.”
In other words, calling bullshit when you see it can make you more productive. So that’s exactly what I decided to do for a week: Call out anyone and everyone as soon as I realized they were bullshitting me. Here’s what happened.
I Became More Attuned To Spotting B.S.
Before I could call people out on their bullshit, I needed to become more aware of it. That meant I needed to learn to be particularly attentive to the narrative the person was packaging their information in. Sudden changes in a story or the inability to answer questions about what they’d already stated were clear tip-offs.
Of course, the context matters too, and when trying to spot bullshit, the messenger is as important as the message. Does the person delivering the message have anything to gain by how you choose to act on the information? If you can keep that question in mind, it’s much easier to spot people who may be bullshitting you.
Bergstrom also says it’s important to take the time to mentally check at the time whether any figures and statistics being told to you are even plausible, and look out for attempts to obfuscate claims behind mathematical, statistical, or algorithmic complexity. “Suppose I tell you that I’ve demonstrated an association between the facial structure of dogs and their owners,” Bergstrom says. “You start asking questions about what I did, and instead of giving you a clear explanation, I keep talking about ‘a complex algorithm that you wouldn’t understand.’ That should be a red flag.”
I Saved Money
To Bergstrom’s point, the first person I called out on their B.S. was the clerk in a smartphone repair shop. I had gone in to get a quote for repairing a broken iPhone screen. The clerk checked my phone out and then “ran a diagnostic” on the device to check if its other components were fine. The clerk informed me “regrettably” that my iPhone battery needed to be changed–for an extra £125 (U.S. $165)–due to the fact that my iPhone 6s was a few years old.
Normally, at this point I would have recognized the bullshit and just said, “I’ll think about it” and never returned. Instead, I told the clerk that that information was false, as though the phone is a couple of years old, the battery had been replaced by Apple (free of charge) six months earlier. It was then that the clerk’s hovering manager came over and glanced at the computer screen and said: “Ah, yes, we see that now.” He then offered me £25 off the repair price of the screen for their “mistake” if I wanted to proceed.
I Felt Powerful
Needless to say, this event spurred me on, and I started calling out bullshit wherever I went. I called it out with a client who was three months late paying me for work, and suddenly got paid 48 hours later. I called it out at the grocery store with an employee who said a product I inquired about, which was missing from the shelves, was out of stock, despite never going to check in back for it. (Shocker! They had plenty.) And I called B.S. with a teller at my local bank who told me that I could only get a confirmation of funds letter via an online request, yet I had the letter in my hands within 10 minutes.
All of this—all of these little wins, no matter how small—made me feel really good because I was taking back power. “Allowing someone to bullshit you, particularly if you know they’re bullshitting and they know you know this, sets up a skewed power dynamic. You can recover some of the balance by drawing a line and saying, ‘Look, that’s just not correct,'” says Bergstrom.
How To Call People Out On Their B.S.
Bergstrom says there’s no one single right way to call B.S. Here are the guidelines he goes by:
- Call bullshit on a claim, not a person. Say, “I don’t think that’s correct,” rather than, “You’re full of shit.”
- Do it respectfully. Learn to call bullshit without disrespecting someone, and learn to accept bullshit being called out on you without feeling disrespected.
- Call bullshit with humility. It can be tempting to do so with a righteous tone, but you’ll surely regret that the first time you turn out to be wrong in calling B.S.
- Don’t assume it’s malicious. When someone says or writes something that is bullshit, don’t assume or insinuate that it has been done maliciously if it could simply be the result of an error.
I Was More Conscious Of My Own Bullshit
One other thing my little experiment revealed is it made me much more conscious of my own bullshit. I started to examine what I was saying to other people with a more critical eye and began to notice I seemed to bullshit just as much as I encountered it. This made me wonder if these kinds of white lies are just part of human nature, or if we have all just become morally corrupt.
Thankfully Bergstrom suggests it’s more of the former and less of the latter. “There are different kinds of B.S.,” he says. “I think we all like to tell good stories, and it’s tempting to veer into tall-tales territory when doing so. I think a lot of B.S. is produced when we want to seem knowledgeable about something, but we simply are not. It’s kind of a natural smoke screen to cover our own ignorance.
“But more broadly, this is the paradox of communication. It provides us with the amazing power of sharing ideas and helping people work together. But communication also gives us ‘handles’ with which to influence others’ behavior. Given that our interests never overlap perfectly with those of others, there’s a lot of incentive out there to use language in order to mislead.”
That being said, Bergstrom notes that all B.S. isn’t bad. “There are certain ‘white lie’ forms of B.S. that lubricate our every social interaction: ‘Your new haircut looks great.’ ‘I just loved your Jell-O casserole.’ ‘What a beautiful baby!'” he notes.
“B.S. can also have generative potential. If we tacitly acknowledge that we’re just sitting around tossing out wild ideas and then trying to back them up, sometimes we’ll stumble across ideas that we might never have arrived at otherwise.”