Don Marti

Thu 27 Jun 2013 06:32:53 AM PDT

Believing Bullshit

Why do people believe bullshit? The problem of producing it is covered in Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit, but why believe it?

It looks as if believing an organization's bullshit is an inexpensive way to signal loyalty to the organization. Signaling through contribution requires skill×effort. Believing bullshit requires little effort and there's no multiplier for skill.

Although signaling loyalty through bullshit-belief can be a good strategy for a member, there are clearly adverse consequences for the organization. The organization fails to capture extra, potentially useful, work done as a by-product of loyalty signaling through contribution. Ineffective managers within the organization can manage based on loyalty as shown through bullshit-belief rather than having to evaluate results. And members make incorrect decisions based on bullshit, not reality.

The obvious answer is for the organization to produce less bullshit. Most of the time, the decision to believe something isn't based on what belief is correct, but on what belief shows loyalty. If the bullshit isn't there, the opportunity to believe it is gone. However, much as it would help to have fewer opportunities for members to signal loyalty by bullshit-belief, the organization may need to continue to produce bullshit for other reasons.

A more realistic answer is to give members opportunities for showing loyalty that do not require either effort, which is costly, or bullshit-belief, which is harmful. For example, provide silly-looking clothing for members—anything that people would choose to wear only to show loyalty, and not for other reasons. Or invite members to participate in rituals, as in agile software development methodologies.

(Bonus link: Michael O. Church on the MacLeod Model of organizational sociology.)