How to Detect Bullshit (From George Santos to Lessons in Your Own Life)

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on February 23rd, 2023 - Last updated: October 2nd, 2023
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You don’t have to fact check George Santos to know he’s lying 

The Peacock series “Poker Face” stars Natasha Lyonne as a superhero with a special power: the ability to detect bullshit.

You can do the same without having a super power. Just pay attention.

At LPP we believe that simple mindful observation and calm, common sense thinking will assist you through life challenges. This includes evaluating the trustworthiness of people in both intimate and non-intimate relationships. 

Clients describe how this ability to think clearly about situations and people is a chief benefit they receive from LPP.

Here are some popular examples.

For one example, George Santos told two moving stories about his mother. In one, she had been in the World Trade Center on  9/11 and had escaped.

George Santos told two moving stories about his mother. In one, she had been in the World Trade Center on  9/11 and had escaped. What good fortune!

In another story a la Santos his mother’s parents had escaped the Holocaust.

Good luck again!

But, really? There is a woman (a Brazilian woman) whose parents escaped the Holocaust and who herself escaped the WTC on 9/11? Wouldn’t we have heard about such a person before Santos’s 2022 congressional campaign? In fact, a person with such a combination of experiences — an unknown person — is almost impossible to imagine.

Anyone hearing both stories should have asked some questions.

But we’re not used to being mindful of people’s utterances. So no matter how implausible they might be, we’re not apt to question them.

I first had that insight when a high school classmate said he had run the 100 meters in 9.9 seconds. This, at a time when only a handful of men had recorded under 10 seconds worldwide. But the student didn’t deign to go out for our school track team. (I went to Northeast High School In Philly, the site for Frederick Weisman’s film, High School. No, really.)

I was amazed that no one questioned his claim. Of course, maybe they didn’t care. But I  perceived that people are reluctant to confront people about their prevarications, no matter how far fetched these are. And that’s even when their incredible resume, as did Santos’s, included fabulous success on Wall Street, founding a dog rescue charity, and being an athletic star!

Somewhat after high school I had a personal experience with a world class liar.  While I was on the faculty at the Harvard Business School (no, really, I taught organizational behavior at HBS 1971-75), I had one student who was enrolled in the prestigious joint MBA-Law program at Harvard.

Jump to the end of the story. He was imprisoned for falsifying his application, transcript and recommendations in order to not only get into Harvard, but to receive federal loans. (In the definition of chutzpah, he got his wife enrolled at Harvard the following year, albeit modestly only into the B-school.)

Despite his insecure moorings, this man was among the most ostentatious participants in my class. And, after all was said and done, he graduated successfully from the joint program. How did he get caught, finally, in these prehistoric days without the instant access we have to every bit of information and data source?

While interviewing for jobs he boasted that he had been placekicker for the Tulane football team!

Sure enough, one interviewer had attended Tulane and knew instantly the chubby man sitting before him hadn’t been on the team.

Remind you of anybody?  Santos boasted in an interview that he had starred on Baruch College’s volleyball team! And even such an instantly disprovable claim (Santos never attended Baruch) only surfaced after his whole resume of lies had been thoroughly deconstructed. Because what are the chances someone familiar with Baruch’s volleyball team was listening?

But wouldn’t a skeptical interviewer, looking at the totally nonathletic man Santos’s picture reveals him to be, have followed up on such a claim? Not in our take-every-claim-at-face-value society.

Why would you question even such an obvious lie?  After all, isn’t it impolite — traumatizing — to doubt and scrutinize people’s personal narratives?

Thus, the tale of George Santos is indicative of — and not a remedy for — the widespread  bullshit that typifies our era and that will continue to do so.

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Stanton’s memoir is  A Scientific Life on the Edge: My lonely quest to change how we see addiction

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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