Bullshitting yourself

There’s a fairly general class of behaviors I’ve been calling “lying to yourself.” They include things like

  • saying to yourself that you don’t want to go to a party because you’re tired, as opposed to because it’s far away and you don’t really know the people who are going to be there and that makes you anxious
  • saying to yourself that you’re in graduate school because you love your subject, as opposed to because the idea of no longer being in school is terrifying to you

but also things like

  • tricking yourself into thinking that the work you’re doing is more important than it is, in order to motivate yourself to do it, e.g. using rewards like candy
  • tricking yourself into feeling happy, e.g. with video games built on fake accomplishment
  • eating food whose taste has been decoupled from its nutritional content, e.g. highly processed food.

But I’m starting to think I’ve been using the wrong name. I think the name I want is actually bullshitting yourself.

Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit is maybe one of the most practically useful pieces of philosophy I’ve ever read. The question he tackles is what, exactly, the difference is between bullshit and lies. And the answer he arrives at is this: when you lie to someone, you’re actively trying to conceal the truth from them. When you bullshit someone, you’re not concerned about the truth one way or another. You might end up saying the truth accidentally, but it doesn’t matter – whatever the bullshit is for, it is for some purpose totally orthogonal to truth.

Maybe the most familiar example of this dynamic is bullshitting an essay for school. You might end up saying something true about the Civil War or whatever, but that’s not the point – the point is to have written something that is recognizably an essay about the Civil War so the teacher will hand you some sort of grade and you can stop thinking about the stupid Civil War already. You’re not trying to find out the truth about the Civil War, but you aren’t trying to deceive anybody about the Civil War either.

So. What does bullshitting yourself look like? When I tell myself that I’m not going to the party because I’m tired, it doesn’t really matter whether that’s true or not. The point is that I’m going to say whatever it takes for me to feel justified in not going to the party, especially if I feel like someone might later ask me why I wasn’t at the party and I need to have an excuse for them. (If we can’t lie to others, we will lie to ourselves.)

Similarly, when I eat delicious, highly processed food, the delicious taste of the food is like a claim to the parts of me that process food (e.g. my mouth, my stomach, my gustatory cortex, my enteric nervous system) that the food I’m giving it is highly nutritious. That may or may not be true, but when the taste of the food is a result of processing, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not; the point of the processing is to get me to eat the food, whether or not it’s nutritious.

I haven’t actually said this yet, so: I think bullshitting yourself is bad and you shouldn’t do it. That’s easier said than done, though.

It would help to have some sense of what bullshitting yourself feels like, so you can try to recognize it as it happens. Here’s a suggestion: to the extent that you already have a bullshit detector for noticing when other people are bullshitting you, aim that detector at your parts. Maybe the bullshit detector feels like noticing when someone reminds you of a slimy car salesman, or maybe it’s a totally different feeling from that. Whatever that feeling is, you can try taking the perspective that all of your thoughts are being generated by your parts, and noticing whether you get the bullshit feeling from your parts.

(Although calling bullshit on your parts doesn’t mean not listening to what they have to say – it just means recognizing that what they have to say might be generated by something other than a desire to find out what’s true.)

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