How to Detect BS with John Petrocelli

Bullshit can be found all around us. But how do you know when it's actually harmful and dangerous? John Petrocelli, social psychologist and author of the new book The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit joins Modern Mentor for a conversation to help decode, demystify, and push past the BS. And yes, it’s science.

Rachel Cooke
4-minute read
Episode #662
The Quick And Dirty

Ranging from innocuous to harmful, bullshit can indeed be combatted if we all work to understand it, challenge it, and commit to seeking the truth! 4 ways to keep BS at bay in the workplace:

  1. Distinguish explanation from evidence
  2. Accept your vulnerability
  3. Ask better questions
  4. Affirm the courage to say "I don't know"


Ah, bullshit. We see it—and call it—all around us: with kids, partners, colleagues, advertising, politics, etc. You name the domain and we’ve seen its BS. Sometimes it’s innocuous and frustrating, but other times it can detrimental, holding us back from trading in truth and reality. 
So how do spot and combat the BS swirling around us? John Petrocelli, social psychologist and author of the new book The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit joined me for a conversation to help decode, demystify, and push past the BS. And yes, it’s science.

What is the meaning of bullshit?

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Borrowing from a definition developed by moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt, BS, John explains,  is “a communicative substance that results from intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously… communicating something that one knows little to nothing about” often to impress, to fit in, to persuade, or simply to hide the fact that one doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
“Essentially,” he continues, “it just involves talking about something with little to no regard for what we would call truth, genuine evidence, or established knowledge.”
And this matters because, as John told me, “the research so far suggests that BS can have a longer-lasting and more impactful effect on a person’s attitudes and beliefs.” In other words, BS carries consequences we need to attend to.

How does bullshit show up in the workplace?

“You would think,” he began, “that the workplace would be a place that people would engage in evidence-based communication and reasoning more than any other place, but you find just as much BS there as [anywhere else].”
Much of this is driven by people feeling obligated to have an informed opinion about everything. This is exacerbated in the workplace, where we are, after all, supposed to be experts at our jobs. So, when a question is posed, we should have an answer. When an idea is challenged, we should have a defense at the ready.
“But the reality is oftentimes we do not have well-informed answers and evidence-based beliefs about the things we do.”
I shared with John some of my own personal experience in starting and growing my consulting business. In the earliest days, I believed that by branding myself as an expert in organizational development, my clients expected a point of view always at the ready. But with time and confidence came the recognition that I was able to deliver greater value by sometimes saying “that’s a great question and I’d love to consider and research it before offering an answer.” 
It’s a tradeoff—more time equals more truth. And that tradeoff should be a win.
My clients appreciate this approach. But in today’s fast-moving world, it can feel risky. 

How harmful is BS, really?

Not all BS is created equal. John uses the BS Flies Index to help us categorize the innocuous to the harmful and everything in between. So, the number of flies landing on…well… the pile represents the degree of damage that BS inflicts.
One fly represents harmless BS. Imagine embellishing the details of a story to entertain or impress a friend or colleague.
Two flies are bad. And it deserves attention in the workplace—the kind of bullshit that needs to be called out. It’s “fail[ing] to conform to common standards of acceptable conduct. ‘Who would ever vote for her with a face like that?’ [would be] a good example.” (A good example of bad!)
And three flies are the most damaging. This is the BS “likely to cause direct harm or injury, perhaps…with adverse consequences.” Telling yourself you’re uniquely good at driving while texting is an example here. The consequences of the BS you’re feeding yourself could be fatal.

4 ways to minimize BS in the workplace

Minimizing BS at work is something we all carry responsibility for. Here are some of John’s recommendations.

1. Distinguish explanation from evidence

Recognize that when a colleague offers you a rationale (i.e., customers over 65 will love this product because it has a 1950’s feel, and it will remind them of their youth), an explanation isn't the same thing as evidence.
Has your colleague market-tested the product? Have they talked to customers over the age of 65? Are there similar products on the market delivering similar results? These answers would serve as evidence—the antidote to BS.

2. Accept your vulnerability

This might blow your mind: the less susceptible to BS we believe we are, the more susceptible we actually are. By accepting our individual vulnerability to BS, we can consciously be on the lookout for it. We can’t combat what we can’t see.

3. Ask better questions

BS often sounds good on the surface, but it doesn’t stand up to honest investigation. Asking questions that challenge the BS-er to go deeper will often uncover the truth. Questions like…
o Can you give me more specifics?
o How will that work in the face of…?
o Have you considered what would happen if…?

4. Affirm the courage to say "I don't know"

Often, people will BS not because they want to, but because the alternative is to say nothing which takes courage.
Leaders, John explains, should focus on creating cultures in which “I don’t know but I’d be happy to explore and find out” is an honorable response. Let your teams know we’d rather have the truth later than a false truth now.
Leaders should role model saying “I don’t know,” and they should reward and recognize people who do so.
It’s incumbent on all of us to pay attention to our own tendencies to deliver BS, as well as to keep our antennae up so we start recognizing it in others.
Let’s work together to keep BS at bay.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.