Paul Catmur: Why you listen to liars


‘It’s difficult to make predictions. Especially about the future.’ – Yogi Berra

Humans crave certainty. We have a deep psychological desire to know exactly what is going to happen in the future. That’s why we have horoscopes, weather forecasts, crystal balls and religion. Unfortunately, we are kidding ourselves as the only certain thing about certainty is that it’s uncertain.

One minute we’re sailing along happily on a cloud of joy, the next minute we lose our job, the car breaks down, the dog vomits on the carpet, or the world is thrown into turmoil by a deadly pandemic, and we can’t even see our loved ones. Yet the more we find ourselves crushed by this unicorn of certainty, the more we chase it. This is a real issue for the mediocre who generally lack the confidence to promise certitude.

Instead, the people who benefit most from this desire for certainty are the bullshitters. Those who will swear on their children’s life that what they are promising is in the bag, unquestionable, 100 per cent, cast-iron guaranteed.

They know they’re lying; we know they’re lying; yet we can’t help but listen because we want what they’re offering. This is why it’s impossible to have honest politicians, because unless they offer us certainty they won’t get any votes. Damned if they do, won’t get elected if they don’t.

BS trumps honesty

A simple example of how bullshitting wins is the fishing trip with your mates.

Occasional Fisherman Mate says: “I think we should go to Spot X because I reckon there’s a decent chance of getting fish there.”

Never Fished Before In His Life Mate says: “Rubbish, we should go to Spot Y. A mate of mine looked on the internet and there’s a carpet of fish out there, guaranteed.”

You will go to Spot Y because certainty has been promised. If you catch fish there you will never hear the end of it. And if you don’t, your mate will claim it’s because you arrived too late, or the tide changed, or there was a banana on board, or someone gave him the wrong colour rod.

'Nobody knows anything'

The phrase “Nobody knows anything” comes from the book written by movie scriptwriter William Goldman. After a very successful career in Hollywood, Goldman came to the conclusion that despite their vast salaries and decades of experience, that the studio executives really have no clue as to whether a film will succeed or not. The certainty which they promise is nothing more than a coin flip.

They will have researched all the trends, they know the right stars, the genre of film that is most popular, the best way to make a trailer, the most attention-grabbing poster. Before a movie is released they will test the film with live audiences and make changes to ensure success.

Yet despite this, 50 per cent of all Hollywood movies lose money.

That’s why there are so many sequels: because if it works one time, they figure there’s a good chance it will work again. This sets off a chain which continues until The Fast and The Furious 37 is so utterly appalling that mobs set fire to the cinema.

Pitching for business

As a creative director in advertising, a large part of my job was to judge what would make a successful campaign for a client. You’d hope that after 30 years or so I’d be reasonably good at it. I was probably okay, but my weakness was that I didn’t actually know, and I knew that I didn’t know. I found it impossible to swear that any particular campaign would be a resounding success. All I could offer was an educated and experienced guess that it would work. Unfortunately if you are pitching for business the clients will generally reject anyone saying, “I think this will work”, for the person who says, “I know this will work”, even though it’s clear they are lying.


Religions flourish because they promise that if you do exactly as they say, you will be guaranteed a spot in some sort of heaven. And because of our craving for certainty we lap it up. Fortunately for all but one of them (I’m allowing for the extremely remote possibility that one of them might be right) religions can never be proved wrong, as the benefits only accrue after death, and nobody gets to report back.

For as long as we prefer to accept the lies of certainty, over the truths of vagueness then bullshitting will win out. This puts the mediocre at a distinct disadvantage, because unless we learn to lie with more conviction we will always be held back. This I can guarantee on my children’s lives.

Even though I don’t have any.

– Paul worked in advertising at a quite good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia including co-founding an agency in Auckland. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of maybe not being the best.

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