The original reason I picked up Justin Gregg’s If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal was that I wondered if its premise at all would speak to this idea to which I keep returning that maybe we’re not really “all that” as a species. Only a few chapters in, I’m not sure yet—but one thing that just came up certainly did exasperate me.

Bullshitting seems like a negative behavior that would gum up the works of the human social world and sow chaos and confusion. But there is evidence to suggest that bullshitting might be a skill that has been selected for by evolution. A capacity to produce bullshit might be a signal to others that the bullshitter is in fact an intelligent individual. A recent study in the journal Evolutionary Psychology found that participants who were the most skilled at making up plausible (but fake) explanations of concepts they didn’t understand (a bit like the game Balderdash) also scored highest on tests of cognitive ability. So being a better bullshitter is in fact correlated with being smarter. The authors concluded that “the ability to produce satisfying bullshit may serve to assist individuals in navigating social systems, both as an energetically efficient strategy for impressing others and as an honest signal of one’s intelligence.” In other words, the bullshitter has an extra advantage over a non-bullshitter: They don’t waste time worrying about the truth; they can focus all of their energy on being believed instead of being accurate.

Not having seen the study in question, this description raises one question off the bat: that smart people are capable of persuasive bullshit doesn’t mean that bullshitting is a sign of intelligence, because we don’t know if this intelligent population in fact is the one choosing to engage in bullshit. Wouldn’t we need to know whether or not these intelligent people are the ones actually so engaged to know whether or not bullshitting evolutionarily could become a signifier of intelligence?

It’s the next bit, though, that sent me over.

One would think that bullshitters would be punished or ostracized by society. But that’s the opposite of what seems to happen. Templer asked 110 employees at several large companies how they would rate themselves in terms of their political skills, such as the ability to network with and influence others. The same was asked of these employees’ bosses. Templer also gave the employees a personality test to measure their levels of honesty and humility. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those employees who had lower levels of honesty and humility (i.e., those more likely to be shameless liars and bullshit artists) also rated themselves as politically skilled. Others agreed with them. The bosses rated their less honest employees as the most politically skilled. But, importantly, also rated them as more competent than their honest and humble workmates. This creates a scenario where the biggest bullshitters among us are likely to be viewed as the most competent, and thus more likely to receive promotions or be elected to positions of power. Sure, we might not like them, and they might be objectively terrible people, but we respect their political and social acumen.

The most immediate reason this had me flailing is that I simply don’t want to live in a world where bullshitting is so rewarded given that bullshitters (per the first quote) “don’t waste time worrying about the truth; they can focus all of their energy on being believed instead of being accurate”. Yes, I know bullshitters abound, and I know they are rewarded; I just don’t want to believe that they also are viewed as competent.

The less obvious reason is that this is a survey (and a staggeringly small one, at that) of employees and employers being used a stand-in for society writ large, when employers are among the most likely to consider the ends more important than the means, given that’s the underlying value system of extractive capital: “The bosses rated their less honest employees […] more competent than their honest and humble workmates.”

Anecdotally, I feel like you’d be more likely to hear from the general populace that, sure, bullshitters are successful but that doesn’t mean we believe they are competent, intelligent, or deserving. (It occurs to me only just now that among the randomly-loading things appearing at the bottom of my homepage is a song quote: “You can either be successful or be honest.”)

The opinion of capital can’t just be assumed to be an opinion shared by everyone subject by circumstance to its value system.

Referring posts: Notes On Narwhals