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We often must judge others, such as when hiring, choosing who to work with, or selecting friends and mates. I find that there are two attributes most desirable in people I associate with, which are authenticity and smartness.
There are two simple heuristics for detecting bullshitters and smart people, which I’ll outline below.
Detecting Bullshitters #
Bullshitters are quite easy to detect, because they have a very difficult time using the phrase “I don’t know”. Bullshitters always have answers. A great example of this is to watch how salespeople operate, especially those who are quite good at sales. Among other tactics, they always have an answer to each question, but unless the answer is a simple easy one (“can I order this yacht in the colour blue?” “yessir, it comes in all kinds of shades of blue, including my personal favourite shade of Bermuda Beach Blue!”). Politicians are also excellent bullshitters: they rarely answer questions directly, but they always give some kind of answers, though it usually involves deflection and changing the subject or reframing the question into a form that suits their agenda.
tl;dr: Bullshitters won’t say “I don’t know”, they’ll usually feed you bullshit.
Detecting Smart People #
Detecting bullshitters is much easier than detecting smart people, and the absolute worst people to deal with are the smart bullshitters, so you want to be extra careful to avoid those. Authentic and smart people are generally easy to detect because they can do two things very well:
- Smart people can break down and explain complex topics in simple words that anyone can understand.
- People who are both smart and authentic will give you truthful answers, as opposed to bullshittified answers. For example, if you ask a difficult question where the truthful answer is uncomfortable in some way, they will simply give you the uncomfortable answer while knowing you might not like it. In other words, they don’t bother sugarcoating (or bullshitting) their way out of uncomfortable situations.
Dumb bullshitters aren’t a big problem; you can easily detect them. A dumb bullshitter will often signal their lack of expertise or intelligence about a particular subject as follows:
- Dumb bullshitters always have answers to everything. They seem to know everything.
- Dumb bullshitters will fall back on jargon and nonsense if you ask them to explain anything complicated. If they can’t break complexity down into simple, easy-to-understand concepts without jargon, they are likely a dumb bullshitter.
tl;dr: Smart people can quickly and easily explain complex topics to anyone in terms the listener can understand. People who can’t do this without using excessive jargon are probably charlatans, or at the very least, aren’t the experts they purport to be.
Prefer False Negatives to False Positives #
The heuristics I presented above are quite simplistic, but I’ve found them to be spot-on in most cases. As a general rule, however, it’s always better to have false negatives than false positives. The cost of becoming entangled with an idiot, a bullshitter, or (worst case) a smart bullshitter can be very high: you want to exclude these people from your life whenever possible.