June 27, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations by André Spicer

Rather than the usual books, Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations is a paper by André Spicer. Normally it'd be something to include in the Interesting Things on the Internet... editions, but there were too many nuggets to quote so I figured it warranted its own post.

As ever, remember to heed Laurie Anderson's advice: "Get a really good bullshit detector. And learn how to use it."

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In this paper, I claim bullshitting is a social practice. I will argue that in particular speech communities people are encouraged to play the language game of bullshit-ting, and when it is played well it can bolster their identity. Under certain conditions, bullshitting is relatively harmless and can even be beneficial. But bullshitting can quickly spiral out of control and take over an entire organization or industry.

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While lying is an attempt to conceal the truth (Bok, 1978), bullshit is to talk without reference to the truth. ‘It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit’, Frankfurt writes.


Cohen pointed out that sometimes ‘the shit wears the trousers’ (p. 324). Instead of focusing on the bullshitter’s inten-tions, he argues, we should look at the structure of bullshit. Cohen goes on to identify ‘unclarifiable unclarity’ as the key feature of bullshit (p. 333). These are statements which are unclear (‘unclarity’) but for which there are no procedures to make it clear (‘unclarifiable’). A bullshit state-ment is ‘not only obscure but cannot be rendered unobscured’. Furthermore, ‘any apparent success in rendering it unobscured secretes something that isn’t recognizable as a version of what was said’

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A lie is a statement which the liar believes to be false but they present as if it is true, often with intentions of deceit (Bok, 1978). In contrast, bullshit is not presented as if it were true and the intention behind it is not always outright deception. This distinction is captured by Frankfurt (2005) who argues that a liar is concerned about the truth, but attempts to replace it with falsehood. In contrast, the bullshitter is unconcerned with the truth and speaks with no reference to it. The bullshitter falls short of lying because they make use of insincere and misleading statements rather than outright falsehoods

Boris Johnson is a bullshitter, not a liar.

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Littrell and colleagues (2020) found that bullshitters tend to have lower cogni-tive ability, be less honest, less open-minded, have lower feelings of self-worth and a higher tendency for self-enhancement. Finally, a recent study of school children found that bullshitters shared demographic characteristics; they were more likely to be males from better-off socio-economic background (Jerrim etal., 2019).

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A second sub-sector with a significant concentra-tion of bullshit merchants is the ‘entrepreneur-ship industry’ (Hunt & Kiefer, 2017). This is the cluster of mentors, (pseudo-)entrepreneurs and thought leaders who push poorly evidenced, misleading and seductive ideas about entrepre-neurship. Often their target is so-called ‘wantre-preneurs’ (Verbruggen & de Vos, 2019). In some cases, these ideas have been found to encourage vulnerable young people to adopt what are seductive but empty and misleading ideas about entrepreneurial success.


A second aspect of a speech community which can foster bullshitting is noisy ignorance. This is when actors lack knowledge about an issue yet still feel compelled to talk about it.

This reminds me of so many "digital and creative" strategy discussions in the city.

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When an actor is relatively ignorant about an issue, they do not have the wider back-ground knowledge in order to compare new claims. Nor do they have an understanding of the right questions they might ask. This means they rely on relatively crude understandings of an issue yet tend to be much more certain than an expert would be (Raab, Fernbach, & Sloman, 2019).

When ignorance is noisy, uninformed actors do not simply stay silent about what they don’t know. Rather, they are compelled to speak about an issue of which they have little knowl-edge or understanding.

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For instance, following the financial crisis of 2008, senior executives of some of Britain’s largest banks were asked to testify in front of a committee of the UK Parliament. When the bankers were quizzed about their responsibility for the crisis, many responded with evasive bullshit. They expressed regret, claimed they had already apologized and shifted blame to others (Tourish & Hargie, 2012). This evasion had a game-like quality. The inquisitors kept asking questions aimed at establishing the veracity of claims while the bankers continued to avoid the questions. This points to a significant chal-lenge for people calling bullshit: the effort they need to put in to refute bullshit is often of an order of magnitude greater than what is required to produce the bullshit in the first place (Brandolini, 2014).

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Finally, bullshit can become sacrilized when it is legitimated by wider institutions. This hap-pens when meaningless terms are embedded within commonly accepted practices, rules and cognitive schemes. When this happens, what was previously bullshitting within a particular organization can begin to seem like something which is inevitable and highly valuable across an entire field. For instance, within the cultural sector in the United Kingdom, a wide range of empty terms such as ‘creativity’ began to be used by actors in increasingly reverential terms (Belfiore, 2009). When this happened the idea of creativity began to be treated as a sacred value.


For instance, a participant in a meeting may resist being swept up in a presentation filled with manage-ment buzzwords and ask for precise under-standings of how this will work operationally. When this happens, resolute disbelief can become a significant barrier to ongoing bullshit-ting.


When bullshitting becomes part of the rou-tine processes in an organization, it is more likely to be undermined through de-routiniza-tion. One way this happens is through unlearn-ing. This occurs when actors consciously question the bullshit they use in an unthinking way. For instance, if a management buzzword is identified as bullshit, actors have to consciously reflect on their language and find alternatives. A second way routine bullshitting can be under-mined is through anticipatory defence. This means actors who expect bullshitting will put in place prophylactic measures to protect them-selves.

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As well as undermining routinized bullshit-ting, actors can question bullshit which has been integrated into the formal structures of an organization. This happens through the process of de-formalization where what appeared as legitimate organizational processes are shown to be illegitimate. One way this process can occur is through theorizing. This is when claims which appear to have a rational gloss are sub-jected to deeper and more searching inquiry by experts. For instance, overblown claims about the effectiveness of a management technique may be deflated through careful empirical tracking of actual impacts. A second way bullshit can be deformalized is through de-sanctioning. This can occur when people in for-mal positions of leadership ‘call out’ bullshit in an organization and question its use. When this happens, organizational members are less likely to routinely bullshit. Finally, bullshit can be deformalized through public repudiation. This happens when an organization as a whole com-mits itself to avoiding management jargon, unnecessary acronyms and other forms of busi-ness bullshit.

Posted by Adrian at June 27, 2021 10:20 AM | TrackBack

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