Reflections on “Knowing When Someone is BSing”

Yesterday Steve Tobak, a really smart guy who has a regular blog
on BNET, wrote the article on BSing.  Tobak is a
marketing and strategy consultant in Silicon Valley.  Some of his
marketing recommendations work out of solid theory, research that he’s
obviously gained both by education and experience.  He’s a very good
marketing guy.  He really, for example, knows how to market a blog.

So, here’s a quick rundown on the 10 ways to know when someone’s
bullshitting you, taken from his latest blog.

  • The story changes
  • They act dumb but they’re not
  • They try too hard
  • They appear nervous when they shouldn’t be
  • They look scared when they shouldn’t be
  • They repeat the question
  • They’re something it for them
  • They’re fanatical
  • They only present one side.

Interesting stuff, guaranteed to get a lot of hits, but when it comes
to lying, Tobak is out of his league.  What he writes here simply won’t
stand up to research scrutiny.

Communication and psychology scholars have studied lying for
years.  Paul Ekman, for example, has spent more than 40
years researching deception.  From his professorial perch at UCSF, he’s
written more than a dozen books, including, “Telling Lies.”  The
American Psychological Association named him as one of the most
influential psychologists of the 20th century.  His firm runs seminars
for people like policemen and airport staffers who really need to study
deception.

Spotting lies and liars

Here’s the kicker about spotting lies and liars.  You can’t.  Really,
you can’t.

This is what Paul Ekman said about lying, just last year.  “His firm
has tested about 15,000 people in many professions, including the CIA,
judges, lawyers and policemen.  MOST PEOPLE ARE ONLY AT ABOUT THE LEVEL
OF FLIPPING A COIN.  MOST LIARS CAN FOOL MOST OF THE PEOPLE MOST OF THE
TIME.” 

For example, one of the most common things people do in hiding
emotions and the truth is smiling.  Note that that’s the opposite of
three of Tobak’s statements.

Why do I bother writing this?  I work out of a fundamental rule, not
merely because I’m a scholar, but because research works and raises my
batting average.  Whenever possible, I believe it’s very important to
make decisions on the basis of good information, researched information.

Over the the last 20 years social scientists have developed a huge
battery of researched-based information.  Why should we go with
charismatic guys and intuition, when there’s so much really useful data
out there about so many important matters in business and relationships?

In short, Mr Tobak’s blog on BSing is, well. . . BS.

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