Modeling the human projection of bullshit

Austin Stag man


An online friend of mine, Josh Bernoff, recently left Forrester Research, where he led media analysis and coined the brilliant term “Splinternet” to describe our fragmenting communication networks. Looking for something new, Bernoff started a blog critiquing the rising tide of bullshit in human communications — everything from Dilbertesque business jargon to the lies of politicians. His style is a mixture of E.B. White grammar guide, Mark Twain misanthropy, and Warren Buffett business clarity. WTF?, a typical intro goes, followed by instruction on how the guilty party could have avoided BS.

At one point, Bernoff asked if I’d do a panel with him, and I began noodling on a model explaining the Creationist Forces of Bullshit. For instance, Josh is not really my friend — I’m falling into the same trap of bullshit in my lede above, exaggerating a minor connection for more persuasive content. So why does everyone, including me, craft levels of BS? My suggested framework for bullshit has three vectors:

  1. Level of confusion — is the author stupid or clear-headed?
  2. Level of misdirection — is the author deliberately trying to mislead?
  3. Level of bias — is the author starting from a point of prejudice?

These three layers explain everything you need to know about bullshit, and why today we have more BS than at any prior point in human history. Let’s explore.

Confusion: First, the level of confusion in communications is up, simply because today we have vast inventory of media that sucks in mediocrity. Journalism used to be a carefully studied specialty, in which editors hired writers after arduous training in small local markets until, after years of work study, only a few talented winners arrived at The New York Times. But today, anyone with a WordPress account can write, YouTube has unlimited inventory for video, and politicians must participate in dozens of speeches each week. In business, you can’t get through a day without someone throwing a half-designed PowerPoint at you. Every product comes wrapped in a nimbus of information; even ballpoint pens now have reviews.

Quality control always goes down when the production of supply goes up. The expert communicators on the far right of the skill bell curve have now been joined by the sloppy masses in the middle, as content oozes everywhere.

Misdirection: Second, yes, most authors of content try to mislead — because exaggeration is the basis of human survival. In his book “Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Human Behavior,” evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller suggests human sexual selection, or how we pick mates, is based on our hyperbolic projection of desirable traits such as health, fitness, humor and intelligence to the opposite sex. So today we buy stuff such as leather jackets and fancy watches that don’t really keep us much warmer or tell the time better because subconsciously we want to project power that attracts mates.

Our ancestors who misled most successfully had the most sex, thus passing their genes and instincts down to us. So of course we exaggerate our skills. This is why businessmen wear ties (a bright phallic symbol) and women don lipstick (simulating the red flow of arousal beneath the skin), and why Donald Trump says his accomplishments are Terrific in every other utterance.

Communication has always been about influencing others to take an action. As we all compete with more content alternatives, we must be more provocative in statements to stand out, to misdirect more strongly. There’s a logical reason why Trump says incendiary things about immigrants, or why Carly Fiorina tells grisly tales about abortion. It’s not just the story; it’s the amplitude required to get a major reaction.

Bias: Third, all humans are biased because we have limited cognitive capacity to take in the complexity of our world, so we filter information with rigid frameworks. Here’s a test: Have your politics changed much since age 25? I didn’t think so. But if you were truly unbiased and now in your 30s or 40s, surely new knowledge gained over 10 or 20 years would have changed your world view? Um, nope. Once our prefrontal cortex is fully formed a few years after puberty, we tend to lock in.

Unfortunately, as our environment has grown more complex and evolves more rapidly, our bias lock-in leads us further astray. We have far too much information to understand now; Google’s Erik Schmidt has noted more data is now created in two days (about 5 exabytes, or 5 billion gigabytes) than was created from the dawn of civilization to 2003. And amid this flow of information, we are less likely to agree with others; the entire population of the U.S. Colonies in 1776 when we rebelled against England was 2.5 million, slightly larger than the city of Houston today. So today we live in a world of 300 religions, where Muslims are an enormous diverse group of humanity counting 1.6 billion, and yet some politicians in America think only one religion matters and all Muslims are suspect terrorists. Today’s U.S. society is 128 times bigger than the little revolutionary group that wrote the Declaration of Independence, and yet we assume we can pick one president who is “right” for all of us. Given the finite circle of any individual’s perception and the growing, near-infinite information cascade around us, our odds of being wrong have simply gone up.

So that’s the explanation for bullshit.

Humans are more confused than ever before, and more likely to express it. As we present our ideas, we can’t help but try to misdirect our communications to make each of us look better than we are. And within our storytelling, we’re all biased, struggling to understand a complex world with cognitive filters our distant ancestors used to manage clans of 150 people. Global warming isn’t real. Vaccines cause autism. GMOs are unhealthy. Big Business is holding you down. My product is what you need. Pick any belief, and share it; you’ll likely to be wrong.

We misunderstand. We lie. And we project our silly bias. All because our desire for sex, buried under layers of Brooks Brothers suits and hipster beards and corporate meetings and political speeches, is required for the next generation’s survival.

Bernoff should have plenty of material for his upcoming book.

Posted by Ben Kunz.

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