New study explains how to deter BS in the workplace

It can be hard to spot a bullsh–tter at first. They make claims that sound right, but upon closer inspection, these opinions have no basis in fact or reason. When we fall for their BS, we feel like fools. ‘I just made a decision based on someone who has no idea what they are talking about?!’ we think. No one likes feeling played.

How can we stop it from happening? Those are the questions that a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology sought to explain.

Social accountability can stop BS

To defeat bullsh–tters, you must first understand what encourages them to start spewing fake expertise in the first place. Psychologist John Petrocelli found that it gets encouraged when people feel obligated to form an opinion and when they know the audience hearing the BS is going to be less knowledgeable about the topic.

“The bulls–tter is a relatively careless thinker/communicator,” he writes. “People may be especially likely to bulls–t when they feel obligated to talk about something of which they know little to nothing about, and when they are trying to ‘get away with something.’ ” Participants were more deterred when they knew their knowledge was likely to be fact-checked by an actual expert, or by someone with an opposing view.

“Given that bulls–tting may potentially serve multiple communicative functions, including interpersonal connectivity and expressions of identity, people may feel free to bullshit with those they anticipate to possess like-minded positions,” Petrocelli said. To stop BS, you need to create a culture of accountability. A bulls–tter cannot sell what we do not buy, the paper notes.

To test this, Petrocelli, invited online participants to justify their views on polarizing issues like affirmative action quotas, nuclear weapons, and capital punishment. People in the accountability group were told that they would need to justify and explain their opinion to a “Sociology Professor” with an opposing view on their stance.

Participants suddenly became much less likely to admit to BS when they knew their explanations were going to be read by a skeptical, knowledgeable authority.

“When people are held accountable or when they expect to justify their positions to people who disagree with their attitudes – people appear to refrain from bullshitting,” Petrocelli concluded. The threat of being called out and exposed as a bullsh–tter may be enough to help bullsh–tters keep their opinions to themselves.