Deception or B.S.?

The Harvard Program on Negotiation (PON)  blog posted an article about deception in negotiations.  Entitled, “Ethics In Negotiation: How tthe Articleo  Deal with Deception at the Bargaining Table” by Pon Staff (August 9, 2022). The article provides four examples of situations in which one could be tempted to use “deception” during a negotiation. (N.B. Neither PON, Ms. Shonk nor I condone the use of “deception.” or unethical behavior.)  By deception, I assume the article means “the act of misleading another through intentionally false statement or fraudulent actions.” (“Deception”). The situations listed include the lure of temptation, the attraction of uncertainty, the power of being powerless and anonymous victims. (Id.)

But suppose the statements are not intentionally false? Suppose they are “Bullshit”? Our book club picked a weird book to read- The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit by John Petrocelli (St. Martin’s Press, New York 2021).   Referencing the earlier work, On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2005), Petrocelli states that “bullshitting”

…involves intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously, communicating with little to no regard or concern for truth, genuine evidence, and/or established knowledge. Bullshitting is often characterized by, but not limited to, using rhetorical strategies designed to disregard truth, evidence, and/or established knowledge such as exaggerating or embellishing one’s knowledge, competence, or skills in a particular area or talking about things of which one knows nothing about in order to impress, fit in with, influence, or persuade others. (Id. at 12.) 

Petrocelli then notes that “bullshitting isn’t lying “(Id. at 14.) because it is not the content being communicated that matters but rather what the communicator actually knows “… about the truth and his degree of concern about it.” (Id.) Using a used car dealer trying to convince a potential customer about a used car as an example, Petrocelli explains:

If the dealer knew the truth, but communicated something other than the truth, then he lied to you, but, if he didn’t care at all about the truth, he was bullshitting. (Id.)

I am not so sure about this distinction. One can intentionally remain ignorant about something or some facts or what is called “willful blindness.”  This has been defined as

deliberate failure to make a reasonable inquiry of wrongdoing (as drug dealing in one’s house) despite suspicion or an awareness of the high probability of its existence…. Willful blindness involves conscious avoidance of the truth and gives rise to an inference of knowledge of the crime in question.

So, if one intentionally communicates some fact with little regard for the truth because one is intentionally avoiding the truth, is this “bullshitting” or deception by means of willful blindness? Does it really matter?  Will the outcome be the same: deceiving the person at the other end of the communication?

In sum, is “bullshitting” just another form of deception and thus to be avoided if one wishes to negotiate “ethically”. Which brings us back to the four situations in which our ethics may be challenged by “deceptive” practices.  The lure of temptation (e.g., lucrative job offers) may tempt one to “stretch” (Bullshit?) the truth.  Or being uncertain about material facts in a situation may lead one to “stretch’ (again, “bullshit”?)  the truth. Or, feeling powerless in a situation, may once again, prompt one to make statements that may or may not be true (bullshitting?). And finally, if the “victim” of the communication is anonymous, one may be very tempted to be less than “honest” (bullshitting again?). (Id. at Pons article.)

So… there is “deception” and then there is “bullshitting”: are they one and the same or different?

… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE

Featured Mediators

View all

Read these next


The Middle East’s Mediator?

As I write this, I am looking across the Gulf of Aqaba at the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, near the place where the Egyptian border abuts Israel, south of the...

By John Sturrock

Mediation and National Security Personnel System (NSPS) Pay for Performance: Can The Pitfalls Be Avoided?

The implementation of Paybanding – “Pay for Performance” is happening now. Congress has enacted the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) into law with total implementation by all government agencies and...

By Carol Rice, Rick Voyles

Mediation And Hybrid Services

From Arnold W. Zeman's blogDiane Cohen raises an interesting and important question in an article published last month by the influential website, In Is Mediation the Right Word? ,...

By Arnold W. Zeman

Find a Mediator