696: How to Separate Truth from Bullsh*t for Smarter Decisions with John V. Petrocelli

By August 23, 2021Podcasts



John V. Petrocelli discusses the communicative perils of bullsh*t—and what you can do to stop it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why BS is more damaging than you think 
  2. Three ways to sharpen your BS detector
  3. Six clarifying questions to help you call out BS 

About John

John V. Petrocelli is an experimental social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University. His research examines the causes and consequences of bullshit and bullshitting in the way of better understanding and improving bullshit detection and disposal. He is the author of The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit. Petrocelli’s research contributions also include attitudes and persuasion and the intersections of counterfactual thinking with learning, memory and decision making. His research has appeared in the top journals of his field including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Petrocelli also serves as an Associate Editor of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

Resources Mentioned

John V. Petrocelli Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
We’ll get a few seconds of silence for the audio engineers and away we’ll go. John, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

John Petrocelli
Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into the wisdom of your book The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullsh*t and we’re going to be ducking the S word a bit just so that the podcast will not be censored and unavailable in certain countries. So, BS or bullsh*t, that’s what we’re talking about. And you say you’ve come from a long line of bullsh*tters. What’s sort of your backstory here?

John Petrocelli
Well, I think everybody does actually. When I tell people what I do and my work, most people have readily available examples of how their friend or their colleague or their Uncle Larry is the world’s greatest bull artist, or half the time it’s Maurice on the second floor in marketing in their company, and people usually have these ready-made examples, and they’re convinced they all seem to know the same person.

So, I’m convinced that we are constantly surrounded by BS artists and, in general, I think most people are, I wouldn’t call most people BS artists, but the average individual, I think, generates their fair share of BS themselves. So, it’s everywhere, it’s in every walk of life, and it’s something that I think is not as harmless as we like to think. Usually, we kind of say, “Oh, Pete’s just BS-ing us,” or, “We’re just sitting out here on the porch BS-ing.”

But we often think that it doesn’t have the devastating effect that it can actually have for our wallets, or for our career decisions, for our interpersonal decisions. Really, all over the place, you’re going to find this insidious communicative substance that we often refer to as BS.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I want to definitely hear about the impact and the damage and what’s at stake here. But, first, you’ve got a bit more of a precise definition than I think most of us do. So, how precisely do you define what is bull? And how is it distinctive from just straight up lying or fraud?

John Petrocelli
Yeah. So, I use Harry Frankfurt’s original definition. He was a philosopher at Princeton University. And, in 1986, he wrote a book, or actually in 1986 he wrote a small article-turned-book 15 years later, and the title of the book was called On Bullshit, and that’s where he defined BS and the definition that I use, which is simply a communicative substance that emerges when people communicate about things that they know little to nothing about, and in which they have no regard or concern for what we would call truth, genuine evidence, or established knowledge.

And so, the behavior of BS-ing is often characterized by a wide range of rhetorical strategies designed to communicate without any regard for truth, evidence, or established knowledge. And that might come out in the form of exaggerating one’s competence or their knowledge or their skills in a domain, or it may come out in the form of trying to impress others, fit in with others, influence or persuade them, or to embellish, or to confuse, or to simply hide the fact that they really don’t know what they’re talking about.

And that’s a pretty broad definition but the core of it, again, is simply talking about things that one really doesn’t know much about, and doesn’t have any regard for truth, evidence, or established knowledge. And that’s very different from lying because, when we lie, to do it successfully, we have to know what the truth is. If I wanted to detract you from the truth, it’s a good idea to know what the facts are. So, the liar is usually concerned about the truth or they know the truth, whereas the BS-er doesn’t care. They pay no attention to truth and they could care less.

And, in fact, by definition, what the liar says is categorically false to the extent that they do know the truth, and they successfully tell us something that’s false. But if the BS-er is truly BS-ing, they may, by chance, accidentally say something that is correct. But even the BS-er wouldn’t know it because they’re not paying any attention to truth, established knowledge, or evidence.

And the social reaction, too. The social reaction that people have towards BS-ing and lying is completely different. So, usually, if a friend or a colleague lies to us, and we find out that they’ve lied, we respond with anger or great disdain, and they’re going to have to tell quite a few truths in the future to gain our trust back. But, with BS-ing, often we let it slide. We give the BS-er a social pass of acceptance because we often think it’s harmless.

Rarely do we say, “Oh, we’re out here sitting on the porch lying to one another,” or that Pete is lying. Because lying oftentimes is associated with fighting words, but BS-ing is we assume that it doesn’t have the same kind of negative effect.

But not only my own research but certainly lots and lots of examples where people have lost money, they’ve made very poor decisions in their life, in their work, in their interpersonal relationships, that are truly grounded in BS. And I’m convinced, I’ve got treasure troves of data now, Pete, in my experiments from thousands of participants, and looking at what they write about no matter what types of events I ask them to write about and explain why they have the opinions and attitudes that they have.

I’m convinced that the personal, interpersonal, professional, and societal problems that we have are often rooted in indirectly or directly in mindless BS reasoning and communication, and being so closely married to BS preferences and so adverse to truth comes at a great consequence to decision-making.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then let’s hear it then if lies or fraud really does sound a lot worse than BS, but you’re saying there’s a lot at stake. Can you share with us some of the most hard-hitting data points of studies that show, “Hey, this is actually really damaging”?

John Petrocelli
Absolutely. So, what I’ve focused on in my own research is what people believe to be true because truth, what you believe to be true, is fundamental to the decisions that you make. So, in my experiments, I’ve used very simple statements that can be readily recognized as true or false, and demonstrated as true or false. And I give people false statements like, “Sydney is the capital city of Australia. How interesting is that?” “Steinbeck is the author of The Agony and the Ecstasy. How interesting is that to you?”

Now, both of those statements are false. And when you mix those with a lot of other statements, what you will find is what we call an illusory truth effect. So, people will overestimate how true something is just because it sounds familiar.

And what we find is when we say that, “Well, the author of those statements that you read, the author was told to lie on some of them. They were told to write half of them that are true, and half of them that are false. All right? Now, we want you to determine whether or not these statements are true or false.”

And another condition, what we do is we say, “Well, the author of these statements, they were asked to write half of the statements that are true, and then the other half not to really worry about truth and not to worry about fact-checking, how true these things are. You can really just write whatever comes to mind.” And then we looked at the illusory truth effect in that case.

And what we find is that when the author is BS-ing, you get a stronger illusory truth effect, so people are much more likely to tag things as false if they’re told, “Well, some of these things are lies.” But they do treat the BS differently. It’s tagged as potentially true or potentially false. It’s not categorically tagged mentally as false as we do lies. Like, if I tell you, “Hey, I just lied to you about a fact,” well, then you know that it’s false. But if I said, “Hey, I just BS-ed you on that,” it’s possible, to the extent that it sounds feasible and plausible, it could be true. So, people treat those things differently.

Then we also find that in some cases the conditions are right, that BS can be quite persuasive even in comparison to strong arguments for an issue. So, we have compared what we call evidence-based communication with BS communication. So, evidence-based communication is the exact opposite of BS. It is grounded in truth, genuine evidence, and established knowledge.

Now, if I give you two arguments that are strong, and in one case I tell you, “I’m concerned with the evidence. I’ve actually looked this up. I’ve actually considered what the data looked like, what the readily available data looked like.” That’s the strongest strong arguments that you can produce. But if I said, “I don’t care what the research suggests. I don’t care what the data is on this issue. This is what I believe,” and I say the same exact thing. Now, I’ve weakened the strong arguments, so that makes sense.

But with weak arguments, I could say, “Yeah, I think we should have comprehensive exams at our university as a requirement for graduation for these reasons. And one of the reasons is, well, Duke University is doing it.” That’s a weak argument. Now, if I give you evidence-based cues to that same argument in comparison to BS-based cues of the same arguments, there’s no difference. There’s no difference in evidence-based and BS-based cues and the potency that it has on your attitudes.

So, BS tends to weaken strong arguments, but if anything, it strengthens weak arguments. And we think that this happens because people tend to shut down. When you know that someone is BS-ing you, they’ve given you enough cues that they don’t really know what they’re talking about, and they really don’t have any interest in the truth, people tend to shut down. And, if anything, they will change, their attitudes will be influenced by what we call peripheral cues, how attractive someone is, maybe how tall they are, how quickly they talk, what their authority position is, their perceived credibility.

That’s not where people recognize the difference between strong and weak arguments. So, BS tends to get people in a perspective or in a mode of thinking in which they’re really not thinking very well, and they’re not thinking very clearly about the strengths of arguments, and they don’t even recognize the difference between the strengths of arguments. So, those are really big problems.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess therein lies the danger, is that because we’re susceptible to this, weak arguments plus a lot of BS, results in many, many suboptimal decisions being made everywhere and at all times that discourses is occurring and, thusly, it’s a whole lot of damage accumulatively. Is that kind of your take?

John Petrocelli
Yeah, and we’ve studied this also in a procedure that we call the sleeper effect. So, if I tell you really great things about an attitude, what we call an attitude object, in our studies we’ve used a pizza, a gluten-free pizza, and we tell you all these great things about this gluten-free pizza and how great it tastes and how healthy it is.

And then we tell you, “We want to know what your attitude is.” Well, we’ll see that people have attitudes about Ciao’s pizza that’s rather positive. But then we say, “Oh, you know, there’s a consumer protection agency that did a study and they found out that Ciao’s pizza marketing team, well, they lied. They lied on three things, and here they are.”

Now, over time, you have two pieces of information now. So, initially, the attitude was positive but then you’ve been given a discounting cue. They tell you’ve been lied to. So, immediately people reduce their attitude, they say, “All right. Well, Ciao’s pizza is not so great then.” But, two weeks later, when we survey people’s attitudes about Ciao’s pizza again, what we find is sort of a rebounding effect, which is the attitude becomes more positive, closer to the positivity that it initially was. And the idea is that people forget the discounting cue faster than they forget the initial information that was positive.

So, now, if I tell you, in the same paradigm, “Oh, consumer protection agency found that Ciao’s pizza marketing team was bull*, and they don’t even know if it’s true that most people loved this pizza and has all of these great qualities.” Again, the attitudes are reduced, but two weeks later it’s even stronger and actually at the same level than a control condition who had never gotten the discounting cue in the first place.

So, here now, we have a case where what discounted the initial information is completely forgotten and it’s no longer worked into the attitude. So, people will say to you, “Well, you’ve got to hear these false things maybe 16 times,” I used to believe that. Well, it’s not true that you have to hear it 16 times to believe it. You only have to hear it one time.

The same thing happens in the illusory truth paradigm. You only have to present these falsities one time for people then to confuse them, either confuse them as true because they sound familiar or they forget the false piece of the information, and the part that sounds true remains. And it comes back to shaped attitudes. And, again, what we think is true would be devastating to decision-making.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, so that paints a really clear picture then in terms of just given how we interact with information and conversation, how we can form perspectives on what is true that are not at all appropriate or actually true, and that can sort of have all kinds of cascade negative impacts. So, then what do you recommend we do in terms of as we’re navigating life, doing research, making decisions, to as much as possible become immune to the negative effects of this BS?

John Petrocelli
Yes. Well, one of the first things I think that is critical to that is accepting the possibility that we are susceptible to BS and the unwanted effects of BS. So, that’s one of the biggest problems with BS is that people feel, one, that they can detect it, and that, two, it really isn’t harmful and it doesn’t affect them very much. But my research suggests they couldn’t be more wrong.

So, the first step would be accepting some susceptibility to it. And, in fact, there’s a lot of research, we call it the Dunning-Kruger Effect that has been studied for over 20 years now, that suggest that the people who are most confident in their abilities in a particular cognitive domain are oftentimes the most susceptible not only to BS but, also, they’re most likely to overestimate their actual skills. So, the cognitive skills that you need to be competent in a domain are the same cognitive skills that you need to recognize competence.

So, often the most confident people, sort of they think that they’re protected against BS and deception, often those are the easiest people to dupe with the BS. So, that would be the first thing. The second thing, I think, is recognizing the difference between explanation and evidence. Explanation and evidence are two totally different things. If you asked people why they believe what they believe, oftentimes they will go into explanation. They’ll give you reasons why they believe what they do. They’ll talk about values, they’ll talk about things that are rather abstract, and sort of the heady things. They’ll talk conceptually.

They won’t give you boots-on-the-ground hard evidence demonstrating the process as to how they came to the conclusions that they’ve come to. So, evidence is something that verifies or demonstrates or supports a claim or an assertion. And people often treat the two things very similarly but they are very different. So, recognizing the difference between those two things.

And then I think the third thing would be to ask questions, to simply just ask questions. I cannot tell you how much money I’ve actually saved myself showing that asking these basic questions actually work. And they’re really basic critical-thinking 101 skills. And the first question that I would ask, when you suspect, “Well, I may have just been exposed to some BS,” is to ask the communicator, “What? What exactly is the claim?” to clarify the claim.

And what you’ll often find, and my research shows this and my own personal experience, I can tell you that people will often take a couple of backpedal steps, and they’ll start to clean the bull up immediately because they see, “All right. Someone is interested in my claim, and maybe they kind of want to hedge it, they want to qualify it in some ways.” So, clarification is a strong antidote to bullshit, so just ask, “What?”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you clarify the claim, can you give us an example? Is that as simple as saying, “Wait a second, John. So, were you claiming…?” precise sentence. And then they say, “Well…” You’re saying that’s all it takes?

John Petrocelli
Well, oftentimes, that’s all it takes. If they tell you, “Well, there’s going to be some changes in this company but no jobs will be lost.” “Well, what do you mean? At what level? What exactly are you talking about? Are you talking about this month or this year or what?” And just to ask clarification, “What?” questions just to get people to talk about it, to clarify the claim.

And once you get through “What?” which is nice because you can immediately expose yourself to less BS if they are willing to clean that up for you, then you’d ask, “How? How is it that you have come to this conclusion? I’m really interested in your claim or your assertion. How do you know?” So, if you ask, “How?” what people will usually do is they will provide for you a more concrete level of abstraction, and they will talk about actual evidence if it is readily available, or if they can recall some from memory, or if they can access it.

Now, a lot of times they’re not able to do that. If they’re truly BS-ing, they probably haven’t really thought through or gone through a logical rational process to come to their conclusion. So, you just ask “How? How do you know this?” or, “How is it that you know this?” And then the third question would be to ask, “Well, have you considered any other alternatives? I hear you saying X, Pete, but what about Y? Don’t this conflict? How do you reconcile these differences?”

And all three of these questions are essentially designed to diagnose the communicator’s actual interest in truth, genuine evidence, and established knowledge. If they’re unable to answer these questions, people are very reasonable when they’ve got enough information. Now, if they rely on what they usually rely on, which is just their own personal or professional experience, they’ll often ignore the fact that personal experience is often very, very messy. It’s a very, very messy data collection method. It provides data that’s random, that is unrepresentative. It’s ambiguous. Oftentimes, it’s incomplete or inconsistent, indirect, and often surprising or counter-attitudinal, not something that we necessarily want to think or want to believe.

Pete Mockaitis

John Petrocelli
And that’s not a good way to collect data.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. And I love that example associated with, “Hey, there’s going to be some changes. No jobs will be lost.” The distinction between BS-ing and a lie, it’s a lie if he knows darn well that dozens of people are going to get laid off within a few months, versus BS-ing which is like, “Hey, he’s got a general sense that we’re probably going to be okay.” But if you’re considering your own job opportunities and economic situation, that’s not good enough.

And so, with those questions, the “What?” and the “How?” and “Have you considered?” I could really just kind of imagine what a great answer versus a poor answer. It’s like, “Are you saying that no jobs will be lost over the next year?” He’s like, “Well, yeah, we’re pretty sure there probably shouldn’t be any.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s a bad answer,” versus, “Yes, we’re absolutely certain that there’ll be zero jobs.” “Okay, that’s a commitment.”

And then, “How have you come to know this?” This is like, “Well, hey, we’ve taken a look at our cashflows, with our reduced revenue situation that we’re at from the pandemic or whatever, a negative event, and we’re still cashflow positive, so we have no trouble making our payroll over the course of the next year.” And then, “Have you considered, well, hey, what happens if it gets a little bit worse?” Like, “Yes. Well, we have a couple years of reserves in savings to work with so even if it gets a little worse, we should be okay.” Now, those are great answers versus, “Yeah, we’re feeling pretty good about this. Hey, this thing should turn around any week now, really.” Like, “Oh, okay. You don’t actually know.”

And then, yeah, that kind of makes it all clear for me, the distinction between the lying and the BS-ing is that’s where it is. And then, in some ways though, John, what would be your take on this? If someone sort of acknowledged upfront, like, “Hey, I’m just speculating about this but here’s my read on things right now,” it seems like that could diffuse a good amount of the dangers of BS. Is that fair to say?

John Petrocelli
Absolutely. I’m totally agreeing with you, Pete, because in that case, you have communicated that you are actually interested in the truth and in reality but you don’t actually know for sure. You haven’t given this vague, ambiguous, pseudo-profound kind of answer that everyone is hoping to hear, and you’ve been specific about your interest in the truth. And so, exactly, if you say it, if you qualify, “I’m only speculating. I don’t actually have the data. I haven’t consulted other available sources yet and I don’t know this for sure, but here’s my sense, here’s my opinion so far but it’s not well-informed.”

That’s one of the problems with BS is that the people are often so ready to offer BS because our communicative culture, there’s an underlying implicit assumption that we are supposed to have opinions about everything but it’s impossible to have a well-informed opinion about everything, and everything is so large now, especially since the dawn of the internet. We’re supposed to have opinions about seemingly countless things now or, otherwise, we don’t sound interesting, we are non-factors in conversations, and that doesn’t bode very well especially with people with a high need to belong to the various groups that they do belong to.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the need to belong, to appear competent, and like you must have an opinion on these things. It’s funny, as I’m imagining if someone asked me…you’re changing my worldviews, John. Good work. If someone asked me a question, I don’t really know the answer to, I think it might be refreshing if I were to say, “You know, I can only offer you speculation on that. Would you like to hear it or not?” And then it’s like, “I’m not going to be offended if you say, ‘You know, no, I don’t want to hear your speculation.’” And I’d probably appreciate being asked if I’m on the receiving end of that.

John Petrocelli

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, tell me, any other? I love those three, they’re very prescriptive questions, the “What?” the “How have you come to know this?” and the “Have you considered?” Any other key words, phrases, questions, scripts that you find super helpful as you navigate this, both as the BS-er or the recipient of the BS?

John Petrocelli
Yes, I gave you examples of when you can communicate directly with the potential BS-er but there’s lots of cases where we’re exposed to BS where we can’t communicate directly with them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, just on the internet.

John Petrocelli
And there’s another basic critical-thinking skills, 101s, three-point question, and that is, “Well, who? Who am I getting this information? Who is telling me this? Or, who is the claim coming from? What is their expertise? What is their credibility?” So, you start with “Who?” Well, then the next question is now, you’re back, “Well, how? How do they know? How is it that they possibly came to this conclusion? Is there anything in their presentation or their assertion, their claim, that they have communicated that would hint at how it is they would know this given their credibility, their level of expertise?

And “What?” back to “What?” But this time it’s “What agenda might they have? What are they trying to sell me? What are they trying to sell us?” So, now, instead of “What?” “How?” and “Have you considered?” you can sort of just mentally go through, “Well, who’s telling this? How do they know? And what are they trying to sell me? What’s their agenda?”

And it’s also useful to turn these kinds of questions onto ourselves because one of the most potent BS-ers that we’ll ever meet in our lives is ourselves, it’s the BS that often goes unchallenged, it’s the BS that we tell ourselves things that we would like to believe, that just ain’t so half the time, probably half the time.

So, it’s good to turn these questions onto the self, and say, “What level of evidence do I actually have? And do I have any? What am I basing this on? Do I have anything conclusive that actually leads me to this conclusion? And what about other people? What about my friends and colleagues? Do they have the same beliefs? They have an important perspective too. What about asking them?” Collecting more data instead of just remaining in one’s box and one’s head can do wonders for the types of data collection that are needed to combat the BS that we hand ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
What this brings back for me is I remember I needed to get a new roof and I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was having trouble getting someone to show up, so it’s like, “To heck with it. I’m calling every roofer that I can.” So, I called like 20 and, sure enough, I had like five show up, so I was like, “Hey, that worked. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

But then they were telling me contradictory things, like, “Oh, you got to tear this off,” “No, you don’t need to tear it off. You can put another layer.” And then it’s like, “Oh, you can just put a coating on the top. You don’t need to do more material at all than a coating.” And so, I was like, “Well, how the heck am I…? I don’t know anything about roofing. You’re the roofing masters and you’re telling me completely different things. How do I get to the heart of this?”

It was tricky, it’s sort of like…but I guess I followed your principles in terms of what was their agenda. And so, when someone told me, like, “Hey, I can’t work on your roof until you’ve fixed this masonry situation over there because you’re just going to have leaking.” I was like, “Okay. Well, this guy is walking away from perfectly good money, so I think that’s probably true.” So, looking at the agenda part of the story.

And then someone else actually offered evidence, like, “Hey, do you see how this is sagging and do you see from this side angle there’s already three layers? Well, the Chicago building code only allows for this thing.” I was like, “Okay, now that’s some evidence.” And it was funny how in hindsight…

John Petrocelli
It’s a picture of your roof not someone else’s roof.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. It’s funny how, in hindsight, like that’s what cuts through the clutter, but because I felt overwhelmed and it was a large expense and these are the experts who are contradicting each other, I find it very stressful. But by following your guiding lights there, I probably could’ve been like, “Okay, I’m disregarding what you say, and you say, and getting the mason and we’re tearing it off and, hey, that was easy. Could’ve been a lot quicker.”

John Petrocelli
Yes. Well, I would say, Pete, you did 100% exactly the right thing in that situation. And it sounds like you asked a lot of follow-up questions, and that is another antidote to BS, because only through follow-up questions are you going to reveal the inconsistencies and are you going to reveal other things about a person’s personality and their agenda that will come through if you follow up with as many follow-up questions as you can.

I had a similar instance recently where I had to have a breaker box to our AC unit switch, and I had two separate electricians come out. The first one said it was basically a $2,000 repair, so they wanted to replace the entire two-breaker panel, and I thought, “Wow, gee, that’s really expensive. I’m going to have to definitely get a second opinion on that.” But I went out with him and we looked at it, he explained everything, and I asked him so many questions, Pete, by the time he left, he was coaching me on how to speak with the home warranty representative on the phone on what to say and what not to say because it ended up being really a minor repair that cost $80 with the second.

Pete Mockaitis

John Petrocelli
There was no damage. The breakers were actually a mismatch. They were sort of apples and oranges and we discovered this, but there hadn’t been any damage to the box itself. So, I could suspect that with something that I thought, “Well, this probably won’t be more than a couple hundred dollars of repair,” and, all of a sudden, it’s 2,000. My detector went off and I just asked questions. Again, I said, “Well, show me what that looks like,” because he said there was damage.

But when he pulled them out, they looked brand new to me so it was harder for him to then kind of continue following down that path because there didn’t appear to be any burning or there didn’t appear to be any kind of any marks. They looked brand new. And so, just asking questions. We did the same thing with what I’ve called the masters, the well-trained artists, the BS artists of all time must be people who sell timeshare agreements for vacations, hotels.

Pete Mockaitis
“It’s a marriage insurance, John. Can you put a price on that?”

John Petrocelli
So, these people are highly-trained BS artists. So, they will bring you in to maybe Myrtle Beach for two nights, they give you free two nights to stay, and they’ll say, “All right. Well, on Saturday, all you have to do is agree to watch a one-hour presentation that we’ll give you. It’s a marketing presentation and dinner is on us and all of this stuff.”

Well, what they do is they’ll bring you in at 10:30 a.m. because they know you’re not going to have lunch before 10:30 a.m. and they sit you in the waiting room until about 12:30 so now you are starting to get hungry for lunch, and then the presentation starts at 12:30, and then that takes an hour, and then they want to show you some of the properties. And then they want to BS you on how great all this whole package is going to be. Before you know it, it’s 5:00 p.m. and then they want you to make a decision. So, you’re exhausted.

And people, we know, are less likely to detect BS if they are fatigued, if their what we call the self-regulatory resources that are the resource, the mental resources that you use to maintain, to change and maintain your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. And when people are depleted of those basic psychological resources, they don’t always make the best decisions, they don’t always behave in the ways that they normally would if they are full of these resources. And detecting BS, and even producing BS, are affected by these resources.

And what they do is they drain them, and then they ask you to make a decision.

But even in those cases, if you ask enough follow-up questions, people will usually come to reasonable decisions if they’ve got good information. When they don’t have good information, or incomplete information, they often make very poor decisions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, John, this is a lot of great stuff. I want to shift gears and hear about a couple of your favorite things. Could you now tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

John Petrocelli
Yes, my favorite quote actually is by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and he says, “When you know how to think, it empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

John Petrocelli
It’s got to be Harry Frankfurt’s On Bull, but I think a close second would have to be anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Just beautiful. The writing is just beautiful and that’d have to be a close second.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you a lot?

John Petrocelli
Well, I would say that what I’ve been trying to do with the book, too, is just to normalize calling BS. And when I think people have commented that, well, some of the things I’ve talked about in earlier talks, and in my research that they’ve read, they said, “You know, this actually works,” and you don’t have to use the word BS.

You can do it in a very considerate way and maybe even in a private way such that people don’t feel uncomfortable being called on their BS because, as you probably know, that calling BS can be a serious conversation-killer, and perhaps fighting words in some parts. So, I would think that doing it in a considerate way works best and maybe even in private.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

John Petrocelli
Yeah, I’m available on Twitter as @JohnVPetro or you can look me up at Wake Forest University Psychology, you’ll find me there.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

John Petrocelli
I’d say call to action would be to, I think, this would be for leaders and for managers especially, to try to create a communicative culture that is open to asking questions, one that is open even to possibly challenging. One of the most frequently used BS words in all of the workplace is best practice, to challenge things like that, and to just create the sort of atmosphere to make that kind of thing okay. And I think decision-making will be much more optimal in that type of communicative culture.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. John, this has been a pleasure. I wish you much success and BS-free exchanges.

John Petrocelli
All right. Well, thank you. Thanks so much for having me, Pete.

One Comment

  • Christine Felts says:

    Thanks John for explaining the entire Donald Trump presidency. The exchange from the bully pulpit to Fox news, to QAnon…a Charletons paradise.

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