CEOs are slammed for BS’ing—but it might actually be a brilliant strategy

March 12, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC

Earnings season is prime time for a particular variety of communication. Here’s an example: “Although our direction is clear, it seems that our path ahead is not quite perfectly defined,” Mark Zuckerberg said in the course of announcing Meta’s disappointing quarterly results. He added that his company’s flagship products, Facebook and Instagram, were adjusting to short-form video to fend off rival TikTok. “I’m confident,” he asserted, “that leaning harder into these trends is the right short-term tradeoff.”

You recognize this form of language: It’s reassuring yet indistinct, confident yet vague, positive enough to get you on board yet slippery enough to evade the consequences when everything goes sideways.

In other words, it’s bullshit.

The world of commerce and markets is thick with bullshit language: the aspiring founder hyping the “addressable market” of a “disruptive” idea to potential investors; the Wall Street analyst blaming a squirrelly downgrade on “limited visibility”; the CEO deflecting brutal criticism of his controversial $100 million podcast star by maintaining that “it’s critical thinking and open debate that powers real and necessary progress.”

Bullshit is not exactly lying. Instead, the bullshitter is fundamentally indifferent to the truth of any particular statement. The goal of bullshit is to project or advance some other idea—our company has a vision for the future; our analysis is sober and trustworthy; we care about our customers above all; I’m smarter and wiser than you are, etc.—or simply to change the subject.

We’re all familiar with bullshit, and as a rule we don’t like it. Nobody wants to be in business with a bullshitter. Right?

Actually, the answer to that may be more complicated than you think. It turns out there’s a surprising amount of bullshit research—by which I mean research about bullshit—and one of the more recent and fascinating themes is the correlation of bullshitting skill and genuine smarts. To quote a paper published last year on the subject by Martin Harry Turpin, from the University of Waterloo’s department of psychology, and several colleagues: “The ability to produce satisfying bullshit may serve to assist individuals in negotiating their social world, both as an energetically efficient strategy for impressing others and as an honest signal of intelligence.”

In short, maybe we shouldn’t be so dismissive of bullshit. After all, notes Turpin, we all know we encounter it all the time, and (let’s just admit) produce it ourselves on occasion. “Every single domain that relies at least partially on people liking you or people being impressed by you, bullshit is going to be applied as a strategy, or can be applied,” he told me. So we may as well take it seriously—thus Turpin and his colleagues’ research.

In one study, a group of participants was presented with a number of concepts, some of which were completely invented—such as “genetic autonomy” and “conjunctive scaling”—and asked to explain them, striving to be as convincing as possible even with the ones they knew nothing about. A separate group rated the answers, evaluating whether they seemed accurate and satisfying—ultimately producing a “bullshit ability” score. This was cross-matched with intelligence tests, and revealed modest but notable “positive correlations.”

Of course, this is just one study, and while it lines up with some other research, we shouldn’t get carried away, Turpin cautions. He points to the ability to be funny as a reference: Most funny people are smart, but plenty of smart people aren’t funny at all. Bullshit ability, he suggests, is similar.

Still, despite our instinct to distrust and even demonize a bullshitter, it seems we often harbor a certain admiration for the skill. A second study pursued the issue from precisely that angle, focusing not on how smart bullshitters are, but how smart their audience perceives them to be. Again there was a positive correlation.

And again, there are caveats. For starters, really good bullshit is initially received as genuine—that’s part of what makes it “good.” When it’s revealed for what it is, the response may vary according to where “adherence to truth” ranks in your value system, as Turpin puts it. If it’s paramount, then you’re definitely going to have a negative, even offended, take on someone you’ve figured out is a bullshitter, no matter how convincing they were.

But the alternative response might be a kind of grudging respect—a willingness, Turpin speculates, “to trade the truth for other goals.” You might, in fact, be impressed. Maybe you’ll conclude this is a person you want to be aligned with, someone you figure will rise through an organization or attract valuable investors, not despite being a dazzling bullshitter, but because of that skill. Maybe you figure the thing about “fake it till you make it” is that, sometimes, it totally works.

Less cynically, perhaps admiration of good bullshitting is a tacit concession that sometimes bullshit has a value of sorts. Sometimes the resolution of a specific crisis turns on factors beyond anyone’s control. But it’s hard to just wait around silently when it feels so important to do something. “What bullshitting can do is help restore optimism,” Turpin muses. “Engaging in bullshit can be a Band–Aid—‘This person is doing something and seems to know what they’re doing.’”

Does, for instance, Mark Zuckerberg actually know that “leaning harder” into short-form video trends will improve his company’s financial results? Is Meta’s path “clear”? Does Daniel Ek’s decision-making around the Joe Rogan controversy truly turn on his earnest belief that “progress” depends on “critical thinking and open debate”? If you’re not convinced, do you really think Zuckerberg and Ek are willfully lying, or is there something else going on?

To be clear, Turpin is not encouraging bullshit per se, and is certainly not anti-truth. And, again, there’s a difference between workaday bullshit and flat-out, calculated fraud. He’s just underscoring a tradeoff most of us make all the time already. “There are costs,” he points out, “to pursuing truth above all else.”

And maybe we already sensed that. We say we don’t like bullshitters—but probably we say that because it’s what’s expected, and we want to look good to our peers and colleagues. That is to say, perhaps our professed disapproving attitude toward bullshitters is, itself, just bullshit.

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