The interesting thing about thinking tools is the fact they don’t have to be complex philosophical or psychological concepts. In fact, the simpler they are, the better they work. Especially on concepts like bullshit. Thinking tools, in that need for simplicity, are like a hammer or a screwdriver. If you needed a manual to operate a hammer (as opposed to just hit stuff) or work out what a screwdriver is for (which is pretty obvious from the fact we know what a screw looks like) then they wouldn’t be such useful, ubiquitous tools.
This week I’m publishing a new thinking tools which is hammer-simple to use, and works. What the thinking tool does is very simple. It corrects our tendency to be influenced in our decision making by concepts that are, basically, a load of bull. How? Well the thing about bullshit is, it’s always structured linguistically to appear to be the opposite of bullshit, I.e the truth. But of course, ‘The truth’ as we all know, is a relative concept and subject to perspective and opinion, so working out if something is or isn’t true is very difficult to do without enough data to accurately understand a situation. Bullshit, on the other hand, is easy to spot because it is a genre of information that is designed specifically to influence your decision making, whereas simple lies are not.
The difference between lies and bullshit
Lies are a very broad concept of (often) pointless fabrication. For example: You might say “I was attacked by a killer owl in the classroom and that’s how I lost my school shoes” (don’t ask, suffice it to say I’ve got kids with a vivid imagination). That is a lie, obviously. However it’s not presenting information in such a way as to affect a material decision making process, it’s an attempt to avoid getting into trouble for losing your school shoes. You don’t need a thinking tool to work that out.
Bullshit, on the other hand, is a strategic form of fabrication which is designed specifically to influence a material decision making process. For example: “We offer the highest broadband speeds in the UK” (a recent conversation I had with a telesales person who wanted me to switch to their service) but when I explained I live in a small village with terrible broadband generally, said “We can deliver up to 20Mb… let me check your postcode… oh sorry, no, actually we can’t deliver anything faster than anyone else to that postcode”. They did, as it happens, offer a great broadband package if you lived in a major UK city with great cabling. However, calling that the ‘highest broadband speeds in the UK’ was, for someone who lives where I do, bullshit.
The difference is clear. Lies are plain fabrication. Bullshit is applying a constructed version of the truth to influence your decision making, even though the decision you are actually making has parameters which mean the version of the truth the bullshitter is presenting to you is, in effect, a fabrication – but only when considered after the decision has been made.
We experience this all the time. It’s actually the result of a data processing error between the sender of the information and the receiver. It’s not really anyone’s fault, it means you didn’t ask the right questions to place the person giving the answers in a position where they had to move from telling a half-truth to actually lying to you to maintain the integrity of their bullshit.
To put it another way, I once bought a Windows Phone (back in 2006) because the guy who sold me the phone told me how great it was, and said it would be able to handle my email accounts. When I took it back because no matter how hard I tried I could’t get it to connect to my Gmail account, or the office mail server (Mdaemon) he explained that it only handled Hotmail and Microsoft Exchange Server accounts. Which to my mind, meant he’d bullshitted me into buying the phone, and to his mind meant I hadn’t asked the right questions before buying the phone in the first place. Was he a bullshitter or was I schmuck? If I had said to the guy “So this phone will handle my gmail accounts?” and he’d said yes, he would have lied and I could have demanded he take the phone back and refunded my money because he’d mis-sold the product. But he didn’t actually lie… the phone would indeed handle my email accounts – just provided by “email accounts” I understood he meant, specifically, Hotmail and Microsoft Exchange Server accounts.
That’s why you need a Reverse Formulation Bullshit Detector or “Crap Hammer”.
How the Reverse Formulation Bullshit Detector or “Crap Hammer” works:
Step 1: Identify a bullshit-risk data source. First you need to recognise if someone is giving you information to influence your decision making. So that (obviously) means sales and marketing spiel, CVs from job applicants, LinkedIn profiles, advice, customer reviews on websites, etc.
Step 2: Reverse the linguistic proposition. If you want to test the validity of a statement that is trying to influence your decision making, formulate the reverse statement and ask yourself if it makes sense or defines a logical point of view that is relevant to your decision making.
Step 3: Ignore anything that becomes irrelevant or non-sensical when reversed. This is the easy part, just ignore any statement that would actively put you off a proposition when reversed, and then what remains is the real data set you should work with to make a decision.
Why does it work?
The why is, like the tool itself, also very simple. You can easily identify the sort of information that’s relevant to decision making by virtue of the fact it either rules in or out a choice based on a specific criterion within your decision – I.e. “I’d like a car, I have £20,000 to spend, so therefore a £60,000 car is too expensive but a £15,000 car isn’t” or it is an piece of information that allows you to make a judgement call “Car a is £19,000 with leather seats and air conditioning, but without leather and air con it’s only £15,000 – is the differential in price worth the benefit?”
This kind of filter:judgement relationship applies to all decisions at some point. Another example: “I’m hiring someone to be a designer so therefore they need some sort of design qualification” (filter)… “Candidate A has a well laid out CV and experience in similar kinds of company, Candidate B has a CV full of spelling mistakes and has worked in a wide variety of companies” (judgement).
When you encounter information which doesn’t help you make a filter:judgement decision based on the data, it’s either irrelevant or bullshit, so it’s best to ignore it. Unfortunately what happens is, we have a tendency (because we’re expecting to find filter:judgement data) to use the irrelevant data or bullshit, which is how we get caught out by it. The point of the tool is simple – you can’t invert useful data, it doesn’t work. There are fixed points in data that are unarguable. In both examples above, if you can’t afford a £60k car, you can’t afford it. Period. If your candidate doesn’t have a design qualification, they don’t have one. If they have taken time and care over the material they present, it won’t be full of spelling mistakes. If you want someone who hasn’t turned over jobs every year for the last 5 (because you want someone to stay in the role for longer) you can make that determination from the job history.
If someone says they’re motivated and enthusiastic, it’s probably bullshit decision making data, because if they’re indifferent and negative, they’re not going to tell you that and expect to that snippet of information to land them a job. You can invert that kind of data… in fact, I just did.
The tool in operation:
Let’s take a moment to test some common everyday bullshit and see if you can use your nice new “Crap Hammer”…
1. CV Bullshit: There are a couple of phrases that crop up on CVs quite frequently that are great examples of the Crap Hammer in operation:
(Original data) “I work well both individually and as part of a team”
(Reverse formulation) “I don’t work well when left unsupervised and I don’t get along well with other people”
Result = Bullshit
Clearly this person is bullshitting on a pretty basic level. Apart from the fact working “individually” or “as part of team” describes every single job in the world (and every single activity in the world as well) clearly this statement is irrelevant, because nobody applying for a job would disclose that they’re lazy or antisocial.
(Original data) “I designed and implemented / managed project x,y,z and it was a success”
(Reverse formulation) “I didn’t design or implement / managed project x,y.z and it failed”
Result = Bullshit
This proposition is a more advanced form of bullshit detection, however the tool still works. Basically, the fact you are mentioning something that went well on your CV doesn’t tell the reader anything about your suitability for another job, doing a different projects. It’s meant to influence your choice, but it’s not really telling you what you need to know. Plus designing and implementing something successfully isn’t really a big deal. Every time you cook a meal that doesn’t make people throw up you’ve done precisely that – but it doesn’t qualify you as a chef.
2. Social Media Profile / Job Title bullshit: In the world of LinkedIn, Twitter and business cards, bullshit is thriving. Let’s see if the “Crap Hammer” can deal with any of that?
(Original data) “I’m currently seeking my next challenge”
(Reverse formulation) “I’m not seeking a challenge at all”
Result = Bullshit
This is (as we all know) a bullshit way of saying “I’m unemployed and looking for work”. Which is no bad thing, we all find ourselves in that position at some point in our lives. But to describe it as not only seeking a challenge, but seeking your next challenge is grossly narcissistic. You might as well say “I’m a hard ass bounty hunter and I’m looking to take down a dangerous criminal”. No you’re not. You’re looking for work. Calling it your next challenge is trying to present yourself as someone who relishes difficulty… you laugh in the face of adversity (etc.) which also means you’re treating your career like a difficult Sudoku puzzle and you fancy yourself as being a bit of a maths whizz.
(Original data) “Entrepreneur”
(Reverse formulation) “Employee”
Result = Bullshit
This is one I’ve fallen prey to myself, mea culpa, for a while I referred to myself as an Entrepreneur. But what does that mean? If you mean to say you’re not and employee and you work for yourself, in a business you started, then your job title is actually your job title, like “director” or something like that. You may be an entrepreneur, but it’s a bit like telling someone your name is “homo sapiens”, it’s a description not an identity.
(Original data) “Catalyst”
(Reverse formulation) “Inert, nonreactive additive”
Result = Bullshit
I’ve noticed how the term “Catalyst” is getting used a lot these days. From “Leadership Catalyst” to “Creative Catalyst” and my own personal favourite “Catalyst at large”. What does it mean? Well, according to my Crap Hammer it means that when you are involved in something, it makes a difference of some sort as opposed to making no difference whatsoever. It also means that, taken literally, you enable the people around you to change without actually changing in any way yourself, so basically, you don’t actually grow or develop your skill set regardless of what you learn on the job. Just like Tetra-ethyl Lead. So you’re a complex heavy metal based organic compound that is only valuable when mixed with fuel? What the fuck already?
3. Branding bullshit. Here’s a few “Crap Hammer” examples of genuine branding guidelines for some big companies…
(Original data from a leading high street bank) We believe that the strongest brands are those that also use words in a way that conveys their distinctive essence. And our entire brand communication system has been developed on that basis: that the visual and the verbal should work hand in hand to communicate, coherently and compellingly, what makes XXXXXX different.
(Reverse formulation) We don’t believe that the strongest brands are those that also use words in a way that conveys their distinctive essence. And our entire brand communication system has been developed on that basis: that the visual and the verbal should work hand in hand to communicate, coherently and compellingly, what makes XXXXXX different.
Okay, so in a nutshell, the things we write and say effect what people think about us. Not exactly the wisdom of the ancients, is it? And you believe this – as though anyone wouldn’t believe it… it’s a core belief that makes you insightful as opposed to what? An idiot?
More importantly, the brand essence this piece of text is communicating is someone who thinks they’re terribly clever by explaining something everyone already knows in a way that makes it hard for them to recognise it’s actually a waste of time pointing out something obvious.
Result = Bullshit
This is a classic. Yes, we get it, the things you write to your customers should help them get what they want from you. That doesn’t make you the Dalai Llama handing out wisdom, you’re stating the obvious, which means, this piece of data is useless.
4. Linguistic bullshit. And the “Crap Hammer” just keeps on going… it’s good for debunking the current jargon fashions.
Here’s an example I read recently, which had me hammering away like a steel worker in a 1930’s dockyard on the Tyne… it’s from an article in TNW (read the original here).
…if you don’t get a closer read on how people engage with your product, or create strategies for engaging with them, you miss opportunities to better communicate your product – and worse, miss the chance to communicate with your user base, and enlist them as your growth allies.
… If you get a closer read on how people engage with your product, and create strategies for engaging with them, you’ll find opportunities to better communicate your product – and better, seize the chance to communicate with your user base, and enlist them as your growth allies.
This is an interesting one because the second, inverted version, means exactly the same thing. However this is another example of the reverse formulation helping you spot bullshit – this is the same point, and if the reverse of what you say is the same as what you actually said, then it’s either something that’s really obvious or bullshit. If it’s obvious, it doesn’t need saying, and if it’s bullshit, it doesn’t need saying. Either way, it’s a simple point made in a very complex manner to make the person writing it sound as though they are telling you something analytical and insightful, as opposed to bloody obvious. Which means they have a propensity towards bullshit.
Here’s another… from an article I read here.
The growth hacker’s job is to use human psychology and engineering to drive measurable results. For the content hacker, life isn’t much different. Content marketing works, but as it grows in popularity, we need to rethink our approach. We need to find ways to use our content for explosive growth.
The growth hacker’s job isn’t to use human psychology and engineering to drive measurable results. For the content hacker, life isn’t much different. Content marketing works, but as it grows in popularity we don’t need to rethink our approach. We don’t need to find ways to use our content for explosive growth.
Without in any way wishing to sound like a dick (but I accept, I might)… I’ve got a masters degree, a post grad, worked for nearly twenty years in digital technology and founded a number of companies that operate specifically in the areas this guy is talking about… but even so I’ve genuinely got no idea what the fuck he’s talking about. Maybe I’m not smart enough to get it, or haven’t had enough practical experience of digital business to really grasp what he’s talking about. However, my “Crap Hammer” suggests that, on the contrary, there’s a least a slim chance that what is being said here is a load of jargon / bullshit. I mean, after all, “using psychology and engineering to drive measurable results” sounds almost identical (in terms of meaning) to saying “finding out what things people want, making them somehow, and keeping a note of whether anyone actually uses them”. Which is the basic premise of every commercial transaction for the last 12,000 years of human history. So what’s the point that’s being made? Is Growth Hacking actually just “doing stuff”? Big whoop.
The shocking, crap-hammered conclusion:
You’ll notice I haven’t used any examples of politics, advertising, sales, marketing or anything else that’s more common, but it works just fine there too. The conclusion is, we live in a world where bullshit reigns supreme in the way we talk and present ourselves. But what it doesn’t do is make us better decision makers, or necessarily worse. The truth is we all learn to recognise the difference between genuinely useful data and bullshit, and we disregard the latter eventually, because on an unconscious level we learn to recognise the situations where we should be cautious before we accept the data we’re being given. Or to put it another way “Don’t believe the things you read in newspapers” or (sarcastically) “Well if you saw it on TV then it must be true”.
The problem is this is an unconscious process, and like all unconscious thinking processes it’s unreliable. Depending on your emotional state, how busy your mind is (distracted by other thought processes) or your own cognitive bias to accept something for illogical reasons: i.e. “I know this sounds like bullshit but I really like this person and I don’t want to believe they’d bullshit me”, we all have an ability to be tricked or influenced by bullshit propositions.
That’s where the “Crap Hammer” comes in. If you apply it to your everyday decision making data, you’ll get a reality check which is both objective and unbiased. Try it out for yourself… you might not like the results, at first, but ask yourself this – would you rather work out you’ve made a bad decision, and listened to a crock of shit, or avoid making bad decisions in the the first place and save time listening to a load of bollocks?
PS. I was going to call this tool the “misleading data hacker matrix” but I decided that was basically a load of crap hammers.