Is Trump a master of Bullshitting?


Bullshitting is not simply a cultural term it is a term used within academic circles to describe a specific type of communication …

[The Bullshitter]…is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Harry G. Frankfurt (2009)

Before we get into Trump, first let’s do a quick pass at a new study that examined the concept.

Study: Bullshit Ability as an Honest Signal of Intelligence

A new (May 17, 2021) study has been published that looks for a correlation between an ability to produce satisfying and seemingly accurate bullshit and intelligence.

They explain why they looked for this correlation …

The ability to produce satisfying bullshit, with its emphasis on impressing others without regard for truth or meaning (Frankfurt, 2009Pennycook et al., 2015), may represent an energetically inexpensive strategy for both signaling one’s intelligence, and deceiving others to one’s advantage. Indeed, past work provides initial evidence for this claim, demonstrating that indiscriminately attaching meaningless pseudo-profound bullshit titles to artworks increases their perceived profundity (Turpin et al., 2019). On this basis, it has been hypothesized that bullshit can be used to gain a competitive advantage in any domain of human competition where the criteria for determining who succeeds and fails at least partially relies on impressing others. In this way, bullshit may serve as an honest signal of a person’s intelligence (and therefore their fitness), even though the specific content of the bullshit itself may be false.

What Exactly Did they do?

The presented people with ten concepts, asked to rate their grasp of the topic. Next they were asked to “produce the most convincing and satisfying explanation” they could for each concept. They were also advised to “be creative and make up an explanation that you think others will find convincing and satisfying.” If they actually knew nothing about the concept, then they were advised to not worry about truth.

Yes, they told them explicitly to bullshit. I do have to wonder about what they are attempting to measure here.

Other participants rated the explanations for accuracy. This is then averaged out to produce a Bullshit Ability score. Here is an illustration …

Did the ability of individuals to create bullshit correlate with their intelligence?

The authors of the study state that they did. They found initial evidence of bullshit ability sharing a modest positive association with measures of intelligence …. except … what they actually measured were verbal skills, and not intelligence.

Remember that these people were told to bullshit. Now here is a question. Let’s assume that the more intelligent you are the more interested in truth you are. While told to bullshit for this “test”, it does not in any way reveal if these are people who would normally bullshit.

I’m not personally convinced that their conclusion is correct. I feel that what they actually demonstrated is that those with better verbal skills were better at bullshitting.

The above was not the only test conducted. They also had a variation where the judges were asked to rate their impression regarding the intelligence the the bullshit producers.

What did they conclude from all of this?

Basically this is how they present their conclusion…

We find that bullshit ability is associated with an individual’s intelligence and individuals capable of producing more satisfying bullshit are judged by second-hand observers to be more intelligent.

We interpret these results as adding evidence for intelligence being geared towards the navigation of social systems. The ability to produce satisfying bullshit may serve to assist individuals in negotiating their social world, both as an energetically efficient strategy for impressing others and as an honest signal of intelligence.

It’s an interesting study and an interesting correlation. Let’s put aside my immediate concerns regarding what they actually measured and simply roll with their stated conclusions.

What does this tell us about the bullshitter-in-chief Trump?

Assuming bullshitting correlates with intelligence, does this then imply that the well-known bullshitter, you know who I mean, is also rather intelligent?

Nope, not at all.

Steve Novella, writes about this as follows …

While this may seem gratuitous (it isn’t), I find it interesting to contemplate how all of this informs our recent four year experience with President Trump. Trump is a lifelong bullshitter, and he applied this as his primary skill to the presidency. Regardless of your political views (that’s not what this is about), just step back a bit and try to look at this objectively. Trump lied publicly more times during his presidency than any other president – over 30,000 times. But Trump is not really a liar, he is a bullshitter, He makes statements optimized for branding and self-promotion, with complete disregard for whether or not it’s true. That is why he frequently says things like, “People are saying,” and “I heard”. He just makes whatever claim suits him in the moment with a maximally vague sourcing.

His bullshitting was also utterly transparent and unsatisfying. Trump also seemed highly susceptible to the bullshitting of others, including dictators and strongmen around the world. All this is in line with the results of this study. Why, then, was he so politically successful? I think it is for exactly the same reason that a terrible mentalist, with poor skills and unconvincing performance, can be world famous if they present themselves not as an entertainer but a genuine psychic. Just think about Sylvia Browne – it amazes me still that anyone can watch her performance and think anything other than she is a low-grade con-artist.

What Browne and Trump share is that they tell their intended audience what they want to hear. The message reinforces tribalism, cultural identity, and validates hopes and grievances.  If Trump were selling you a used car I don’t think he would be terribly convincing. Really – just transpose Trump’s typical phrasings into a sales-pitch and tell me you would buy that car. “This is a beautiful car, you’ve never seen anything like it. I hear it gets a hundred miles to the gallon, that’s what people are saying. Your going to miss going to the gas station. This is going to be a driving experience better than any in the history of cars.”

This is partly why Trump is so divisive. If you align with his message, he is hero and a savior, a warrior for your side. If you don’t, he’s an obvious con-artist, his bullshit unbelievably terrible and unconvincing. This creates a wide gulf between the two sides with no way to close the gap. And like all people victimized by a con-artist, the last thing they want to do is admit they were conned.

The big challenge for now is how do we close this gap and bring all these people back to reality?

Those that buy into Mr T’s BS are using a lot of motivated reasoning to enable them to accept it all as “Truth”. He basically panders to their emotional needs, tells them they are truly special, that they have been left behind, but he can change all that. They invest in a message that appears to offer them hope. After years you such investment, they now can’t come to terms with the truth and realise that they have simply been manipulated.

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