What Is an Identity? Cover

You Don’t Need an Identity to Have a Life

Dressed in a brown, too large sweater, a man is standing in an archway, elbows crossed. It’s snowing. Having waited for hours in the cold, the bank across the street finally opens. He walks in.

Inside the Zurich Community Bank, he writes down a 13-digit number on a piece of paper, which the clerk hands to a more senior employee, who guides the man to an elevator. Down in the vault, a security guard silently gestures him towards the fingerprint identification system. He passes.

As he sits down in a dimly lit cabin, another clerk retrieves a metal lock box, roughly the size of two shoe cartons, from the bank’s walk-in safe. He places it in front of the man, unlocks it, nods, and walks away. After the man’s made sure the cabin curtain is closed, he opens the box.

There’s nothing unusual inside. A bunch of markers, a flashlight, contact lenses, a watch, a credit card, his vaccination record, a USB stick. His eyes quickly scan the contents, resting on one item almost instantly: his passport. He opens it and sits down in the small cabin chair.

After what feels like a lifetime, he nods, but his face is full of doubt. As if to make himself believe, he utters:

“My name is Jason Bourne.”


The Role of His Life

In 1942, Howard Hughes Jr. set out to build the biggest plane in the history of mankind. At a wingspan of 320 ft (97 m), the length of half a Football field, and towering eight stories high, to this day it remains the largest aircraft ever flown. The name of the colossus reveals as much about the man behind it as does the endeavor itself: the Hughes H-4 Hercules would be her father’s ticket into the annals of history.

“I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.” 

Even considering the already high stakes, Hughes still understated how invested he was into the project. Beyond his reputation, he had put something even more fragile on the line: his identity.

Born to Howard Sr. and Allene Stone Gano in 1905, the young man proved early to be nothing short of gifted. At eleven he built a radio transmitter, at twelve he constructed a motorcycle, and by his twenties, he played a handicap of three in golf. He would also turn out a brilliant pilot. However, none of that could prepare him for the adversity no child should have to face: losing both parents by age 19.

With almost prophetic vision, he used his inheritance to acquire the majority stock share of the business his father had founded, Hughes Tool Company. Thanks to the intellectual property it contained, this asset would make Hughes Jr. one of the world’s wealthiest men for the rest of his life. His father, while not as mechanically adept, helped pioneer and patent a drill bit for oil exploration. It used two cones, rotating against one another, which sped up drilling by a factor of up to ten.


In as tragic a story as only life can write, this one move both gave his son all the freedom in the world and forever bound him to the shackles of a restless self. Hughes Jr. quickly left his father’s business in more capable hands and went on a long string of ultimately unsuccessful careers as a filmmaker, stock trader, pilot, real estate investor, aircraft manufacturer, and defense contractor.

The Hughes H-4 Hercules was the pinnacle of his failures. Nicknamed the ‘Spruce Goose’ by critics for its wooden materials, it racked up a staggering $23 million bill, almost $300 million in today’s dollars. After five years of development, it only took a single test flight, during which Hughes jeopardized the entire operation, by spontaneously accelerating and forcing a takeoff. The plane did lift, but only for a mile and a mere 70 feet above the water. After that, it was locked away in hangars and later museums, accruing millions of dollars a year in maintenance costs.

And so it goes that Hughes’s Wikipedia page reads he was “known during his lifetime as one of the most financially successful individuals in the world.” Readers of Ryan Holiday’s Ego Is The Enemy, however, know better:

“Howard Hughes, like so many wealthy people, died in an asylum of his own making. He felt little joy. He enjoyed almost nothing of what he had. Most importantly, he wasted. He wasted so much talent, so much bravery, and so much energy.”

Howard Hughes Jr. withered away an entire lifetime pretending he was a genius inventor’s son, when that role was never really his to play. And we all do that. Playing characters we weren’t cast for.

For what it’s worth, Hughes was onto something with the title of his first of many failed movies: Everybody’s Acting.

Mirror, Mirror…

Bourne runs his fingers along the edges of the iron case. His gut tells him there’s more. With a clicking noise, the inlay comes loose. What’s revealed underneath is beyond anything his passport could tell him. Horrified, he stares at a gun, another dozen or so passports, and what looks to be at least $100,000 cash, spread across a variety of currencies. Clearly, Jason Bourne is not an average citizen. But, having lost his memory, he has no idea why.


What’s most fascinating about the entire bank scene is that it manages to fill an eternity of five minutes of on-screen time with a mere nine lines of dialogue. It’s a thread that continues throughout the movie. The script is less than 7,500 words, whereas the average screenplay clocks in at almost twice that.

That’s because the story of Jason Bourne is the fictional equivalent of looking into a mirror for the first time in months: you don’t need words, you need context. Who’s that person? Why are they the way they are? Life is like that. We’re busy running around, checking items off lists, working towards some distant goal, and before we know it, we’ve changed beyond recognition.

Trying to make sense of ourselves, to shape a coherent picture, we each speak some 16,000 words a day, and oh, how we long for them to be definitive: “I’m bad at math,” “she’s pretty,” “he’s always been this way.” We’re tying up a parcel to then carry it around, like Bourne’s lock box. Or, as Naval Ravikant puts it:

“What we do is we accumulate all these habits. We put them in the bundle of identity, ego, ourselves, and then we get attached to that. I’m Shane. This is the way I am. I’m Naval. This is the way I am.”

It’s almost as if identity is antifragile. The heftier you shock the system, the harder the world pokes at the labels we so proudly sow on our souls, the more our identity crystallizes, refusing to change. The biases that cause this behavior are part of the human condition. Science confirms:

We are all Jason Bourne. We’ve played so many parts in so many movies that we’ve forgotten a whole bunch of them. And yet, they’re still there. Pieces of an incoherent puzzle. Every day, we build more towards assembling a self, chiseling an identity out of the marble, only to ultimately find we might not like what we’ve created.

Eventually, our roles will catch up to us. Especially if we let someone else write the script.

The Maze Inside Your Mind

Over the span of 14 years and five films, the Bourne movie series has been one of astronomic success, grossing over $1.6 billion. But if you draw a timeline of the full chronology and look at it closely, you’ll see the story ended after the first film. By the time the curtains close, Bourne knows who he is. Who he was. He then spends all subsequent movies trying to right yet another wrong someone else has dug up from his past. Always alive, but never truly living.

Bourne is stuck in what Ernest Becker would call an immortality project. An immortality trap, really. As Sam Keen writes in the foreword to Becker’s The Denial of Death:

“Society provides the second line of defense against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market.”

We construct this conceptual self next to our physical self to infuse meaning into our lives, whether there actually is some or not. The reason this unconscious play always works is that it defers the result to when no one can hold us accountable to it: the time after we die. Becker’s big takeaway is that all of civilization is in a giant rat race for legacy, a race no one can really win.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

According to Bronnie Ware, palliative nurse and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, this race for pleasing society, not living true to one’s self, but for what others expect, tops the list:

“Of all of the regrets and lessons shared with me as I sat beside their beds, the regret of not having lived a life true to themselves was the most common one of all. It was also the one that caused the most frustration, as the client’s realization came too late. “It’s not like I wanted to live a grand life,” Grace explained in one of many conversations from her bed. […] “But I wanted to do things for me too and I just didn’t have the courage.””

Whether you’re trying to build the world’s biggest plane or vindicate your former self, a life in service of such heavy legacy is a gamble. Whatever conceptual self you manage to assemble, it may not last, nor be perceived in any way as what you set out to make it. We’re always told our potential is limited by some piece missing from the identity puzzle. Supposedly, we lack discipline, or courage, or integrity, or all of them. I don’t think that’s our biggest hindrance.

Our biggest limiter of potential is that we don’t use the power to reinvent ourselves in any given minute.

Like Actors on a Stage

In 1979, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer gathered a group of men over 70 and arranged a five-day retreat for them in an old New Hampshire monastery. The only catch? They had to live, speak, and act as if it was 1959. More than an elaborate play, this study was supposed to resemble actual time travel. Each participant wrote a short biography of their 1959-self, the house was designed in contemporary style, magazines, newspapers, and books of the time were collected, and no talk of anything post-1959 was allowed.

When the men returned, they were not the same. In her account of the event, Counterclockwise, Langer writes:

“We retested all participants and found that indeed, the mind has enormous control over the body. […] On many of the measures, the participants got “younger.” The experimental group showed greater improvement on joint flexibility, finger length (their arthritis diminished and they were able to straighten their fingers more), and manual dexterity. On intelligence tests, 63 percent of the experimental group improved their scores. There were also improvements in height, weight, gait, and posture. Finally, we asked people unaware of the study’s purpose to compare photos taken of the participants at the end of the week to those submitted at the beginning of the study. These objective observers judged that all of the experimental participants looked noticeably younger at the end of the study.”

When they changed their identity, basically at will, their biology followed. Isn’t that against anything common sense would have us believe? But it’s not only science that shows how powerful flipping the script can be. Real actors sometimes do it too. Like Jim Carrey.


When he was younger, he would visualize himself as a person of success in order to subconsciously steer his actions toward grand achievements. He once told Oprah about how he wrote himself a check for $10,000,000 and post-dated it five years, only to find out he would receive roughly this sum for his part in Dumb and Dumber, just before the deadline.

In recent years, however, he’s changed. Avoiding the spotlight, he’s picked up painting, directing, and often talks in riddles. When he does appear, he seems very present, but always enigmatic. What happened to him? In a 2017 interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, he helped us understand:

“I believe that I had to become a famous idea and get all the stuff that people dream about and accomplish a bunch of things that look like success in order to give up my attachment to those things.”

He then continues to explain that identity, like fame, money, or power, is nothing but a game:

“They’re all characters that I played. Including Jim Carrey, including Joel Barish, including any of those things. They’re all characters. Jim Carrey was a less intentional character, because I thought I was just building something that people would like, but it was a character. I played the guy that was free from concerns, so that people who watched me would be free from concern.

People talk about depression all the time. […] Depression is your body saying ‘fuck you, I don’t want to be this character anymore. I don’t want to hold up this this avatar that you’ve created in the world. It’s too much for me.’ A friend of mine who’s a spiritual teacher has a really good take on this. His name is Jeff Foster and he says that you should think of the word depressed as ‘deep rest.’ Deep. Rest. Your body needs to be depressed. It needs deep rest from the character that you’ve been trying to play.”

Right now, Jim Carrey is done playing the identity game. He knows he can pick it up whenever he wants and become whoever he wants. Like the men in the study, he’s not bound to the reality he lives in. He creates his own. But to do that, he doesn’t need to play a character:

“I have sadness and joy and elation and satisfaction and gratitude beyond belief, but all of it is weather. And it just spins around the planet.”

Nothing has happened to Jim Carrey. He has always taken himself apart and reassembled in new ways. The fact that we haven’t is what makes us feel weird about it.

Jim Carrey has, once again, happened to us. And now the ball is in our court.


The Most Dangerous Drug in the World

“You move, you die.”

As Bourne confronts his persecutor at gunpoint, he finally gets to ask the question he’s been dying to get answers to:

“Who am I?”

His former supervisor isn’t too happy about Bourne’s loss of memory.

“You’re U.S. government property! You’re a malfunctioning $30 million weapon! You’re a total goddamn catastrophe!”

What Bourne suspected all along, his worst fears, they all seem to come true. He’s an assassin. And not just any assassin.

“I don’t send you to kill. I send you to be invisible. I send you because you don’t exist.”

Suddenly, a flashback hits Bourne. He remembers. The location. The target. The reason for his failure. His ex-boss can tell. And then, something fascinating happens.

“I don’t want to do this anymore.”

The second Bourne gets closure on his past identity, he abandons it, choosing his own side. Viewers jump in their seats. For the past two hours, they’ve watched Bourne at his best: being a chameleon with a fluid self, a man who can adapt to any circumstance. Through four languages, multiple break-ins, close quarters combat, wide range shooting, and a car chase, he’s proven situational awareness is his strength. And in that, you can’t afford to have a rusty identity.

Beggar or bellboy, detective or assassin, he must switch between these characters from one minute to the next. For him, it’s a matter of life and death. For us it may not be, but that’s what real antifragility looks like. In order for the system to grow from disorder, parts must be allowed to break, fast and often.

Out of all human ideas, identity might be the most overrated and, in fact, the most dangerous. It’s as addictive as other figurative drugs, like money, status, power, but you don’t have to get a hold of it first. It’s ever-present, already in your grasp, always on top of your mind.

And yet, every time you enter a room full of strangers, you get to reinvent yourself. You can choose to be fluid. Limitless. So much more than your passport. Use that power.

Like the man in an overly large shirt, who walks into a tiny scooter store in Greece, and, when asked if he has ID, only shrugs and says:

“Not really.”

Why Losers Will One Day Rule The World Cover

Why Losers Will One Day Rule The World

“If you’re not a genius, don’t bother.”

Jim Bennett’s voice roars across the lecture hall.

“If you take away nothing else from my class, from this experience, let it be this. The world needs plenty of electricians, and a lot of them are happy.”

Portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in a 2014 rendition of The Gambler, Bennett is an English literature professor at UCLA. Or at least, he pretends to be. What he really teaches, however, is something else entirely.

“Now, the trouble with writing, if I may bring it up here in the English Department, is we all do a little of it from time to time. Writing. And some of us start to think, delusionally, maybe with a little time, a little peace, a little money in the bank, and you get that room of your own, you think, “Well, shit, I might be a writer, too.”

I mean, we accept genius in sports as something we cannot do. But it’s no more likely that you could be a writer that you could be what? An Olympic pole-vaulter? Because what you have to be, before you try to be a pole-vaulter…

Hello! Is a pole-vaulter, no?”

Like his students, you may already roll your eyes, but what’s most annoying about Bennett isn’t his rude, nihilist attitude. Much worse, he has a point. Sure, no pain, no gain, we know that much. But what about no prodigy, no greatness? That one’s a lot harder to process.

If we’re honest, deep down it’s killing us. But why?

A Nitpicker at Heart

From 1856 to 1863, Austrian abbot Gregor Mendel took care of 28,000 younglings. Not monks, plants. The passionate gardener dedicated multiple years of his life to counting peas, for he could not shake the hunch it might reveal answers to “a question the importance of which cannot be overestimated in connection with the history of the evolution of organic forms.”

And, despite never receiving due credit in his lifetime, answers he did find. Crossing pure breeds of all shapes, colors, and sizes, Mendel discovered that green peas mixed with yellow peas always yielded only yellow peas. It was only in a subsequent, hybrid breed generation, that green peas started showing up again. Therefore, Mendel dubbed the yellow trait ‘dominant’ and the green trait ‘recessive.’

150 years later, an entire branch of science, genetics, has grown deep roots from Mendel’s original seeds. We now know that the traits are variants of individual genes, that their pairings are probabilistic, and that we can determine the resulting types with simple tables.


The underlying math of Mendel’s peas is entirely objective and fair. What’s not is that the same genetic heredity scheme also applies to humans. Some of us are green, some of us are yellow. Some round, others wrinkled.

And the world has always loved green peas.

Winners Win…

Jeremy Meeks is not your average felon. After almost a decade in jail for grand theft, he was sentenced to another 27 months for gang violence in 2014. As usual, the police released his mugshot online.

What’s less usual is that over 100,000 shares and one GoFundMe campaign later, Meeks scored a modeling contract, whilst still in prison. Upon release, he debuted at the New York Fashion Week.

He now sports 1.8 million Instagram followers, a lavish home, a Maserati, and dates the heiress of a fashion billionaire.

It’s easy to look at this situation and call it unfair. It is. But besides winning the genetic lottery, there’s a more subtle element to his story, something that really eats away at us: When you’re extraordinary, the world will find a way to tell you.

Bennett’s case in point:

“Let’s have a look at Dexter. Dexter! An ordinary-looking young man
with a what? Size 40 jacket, regular features, and decent dentition, is the second-ranked collegiate tennis player in the United States of America. How did that come about, Dexter? You come from a tennis family?”

“Well, I mean, I started playing five years ago in high school ’cause the tennis guys have the best weed.”

For some, high school becomes college, for others it’s preschool. But the definition of genius is being too good to ignore. And once the glass breaks…

“What happened when you noticed you were naturally better than everybody?”

“I…I got interested in the game.”

“That is an IQ break point, brother. Right there! Do you remember Machiavelli? That would have been in September.”

“Man. I can remember September.”

“All right. Is it the game, brother, or the money? Virtu or fama? Fame or virtue?
What are you after? Don’t go modest on me. What do you want?”


“You got ambitious, yeah?”

“I realized, as I learned about the game, that I was in reach of… In reach of…”

“Highest level?”

“Highest level, yeah.”

What Bennett is hinting at is that everyone, even a stoner like Dexter, is enough of a Machiavelli to recognize when life is handed to them on a silver platter. Eventually, the trigger will fire and the genius will soar past the rest.

Meanwhile, most of us mortals are free both from federal prosecution and drugs, yet we still can’t find a purpose.

…Losers Lose

Somewhere between our seventh birthday and entering college or starting to work, most of us have figured out that we’re not particularly brilliant at anything. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Even worse, it doesn’t change any of the voices around us. When you’re a pea, the world really wants you to be green, true colors remiss. Pressure for greatness is applied, regardless of whether you hold the capacity to.

On top of that, career paths are dissolving left and right. Google hires coders off exposing competitor flaws online, stay-at-home moms run e-commerce empires, and what startup ever required a CV if you brought the skills?

In a world where even a mediocre career unfolds in a million ways, the non-genius loses twice. Besides not making the draft, he or she is burdened with choice. Choice among a sea of unsatisfactory options, which cripples us, as Barry Schwartz explains:

“The very wealth of options before us may turn us from choosers into pickers.

A chooser is someone who thinks actively about the possibilities before making a decision. A chooser reflects on what’s important to him or her in life, what’s important about this particular decision, and what the short-and long-range consequences of the decision may be. A chooser makes decisions in a way that reflects awareness of what a given choice means about him or her as a person. Finally, a chooser is thoughtful enough to conclude that perhaps none of the available alternatives are satisfactory, and that if he or she wants the right alternative, he or she may have to create it.

A picker does none of these things. With a world of choices rushing by like a music video, all a picker can do is grab this or that and hope for the best.”

In face of such disgrace, people like Bennett prefer to self-destruct.


Cats Are Hard to Understand

Having spotted his novel in a hallway showcase, a student calls out Bennett on his rant about genius.

“You are one.”

“A pole-vaulter?”

“A novelist.”

“No, I am not. For me to be a novelist, I would have to make a deal with myself, that it was okay being a mediocrity in a profession that died commercially in the last century. All right, people do that. I am not one of them.”

No, Jim. Clearly. In lack of destiny, Bennett perpetually pokes the universe, questioning his existence. Heir to one of the richest men in America, he chooses to hide behind a pathological gambling addiction, rather than embrace his losing status.

And a loser he is indeed. Already owing money to a host of dangerous people, he continues to ask for more, only to blow it on yet another deck of cards. He is utterly and completely lost. But being a literature professor, he sure must remember what the cat told Alice:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

“I don’t much care where –”

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

There are two ways to interpret that last line and the perspective Bennett chooses, that’s his big mistake.

Lunch Is Never Free

Of course Bennett knows he’s not alone.

“But it’s still a gamble, isn’t it?”

Dexter nods. Bennett might as well be talking about his own life, but he’s not. What he refers to is the commitment to rise to the occasion. The challenge of the exceptional. Fully aware of their talents, they still have to show up, day in and day out. Even for a genius, genius might be out of reach.

That’s hardly better than the rest of us, who’re desperate for something to hold on to. Anything at all.

Green peas, yellow peas, no one really wins the game when nature is the house. They’re two different problems, but maybe the solution is the same.


Even Nowhere Is a Place

I’ve been writing for 3.5 years, but I still don’t know where I want to go. The best destination I’ve managed to find comes from a piece of advice by Bennett’s lender of last resort:

“I’ve seen you be half a million dollars up.”

“I’ve been up two and a half million dollars.”

“What do you got on you?”


“What did you put away?”


“You get up two and a half million dollars, any asshole in the world knows what to do.

You get a house with a 25-year roof, an indestructible Jap economy shitbox, you put the rest into the system at 3%-to-5% to pay your taxes, and that’s your base, get me? That’s your Fortress of Fucking Solitude. That puts you for the rest of your life at a level of “fuck you.”

Somebody wants you to do something? “Fuck you.” Boss pisses you off? “Fuck you!” Own your house, have a couple bucks in the bank, don’t drink. That’s all I have to say to anybody at any social level.”

Bennett isn’t a loser because he’s playing a pointless game. The real reason his loan shark is mad at him is that he chose to stay in after he won. Life may force you to bet, but at least make it a gamble worth walking away from should you succeed.

Naval Ravikant puts it a bit more philosophically:

“A great goal in life would be to not have to be in a given place at a given time.

That is a recent vector that I’m trying to work towards. Obviously it’s not fully realistic, you know you have meetings and stuff, but at an even more basic level you have a job, right? Most of us have jobs we go to at a certain time of the day and can’t come back until a certain time and somebody else is telling us what to do all day long.

I think it’s really worth, whenever you can in life, if you have the choice, optimize for independence rather than optimize for pay.”

If it doesn’t matter where you go, you might as well walk on an empty, long, winding, crazy path. All roads lead nowhere, but nowhere is still a place. Regardless of whether you’re excited or inspired, when you choose something over nothing, something always happens.

Maybe the opposite of depressed isn’t happy, but arbitrary.

The Purpose of Life Is to Be Pointless

Whether you’re a genius afraid to take your shot, or an aimless wanderer waiting for the sign, it seems the world desperately wants you to figure out what you want and then be bloody brilliant at it. I don’t think that’s true.

Actually, we’re waiting for you to be pointless. Aimed at an arbitrary goal, just aimed after all. Regardless of what we think of you. We’re all gamblers here. And all gamblers lose.

Go on, pick up your badge. Wear it, and maybe you’ll be free.

Naval thinks so:

“The smartest and the most successful people I know started out as losers. If you view yourself as a loser, as someone who was cast out and has no role in normal society, then you will do your own thing and you’re much more likely to find that winning path. It helps to start out by saying, “I’m never going to be popular. I’m never going to be accepted. I’m already a loser. I’m not going to get what all the other kids have. I’ve just got to be happy being me.””

There’s a fine line between obliterating and liberating. No matter if you’re full of talent or trivialities, only losers get to go for broke. A shot to sit at the table of “fuck you.”

That is why one day, they will rule the world.

How To Eliminate the Number One Cognitive Bias on the Internet Cover

How To Eliminate the #1 Cognitive Bias on the Internet

In 1906, famed English statistician Sir Francis Galton visited the annual ‘West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition.’ The 84-year-old scientist was obsessed with breeding in his spare time. While I’m sure he strolled along the stalls amidst curious onlookers, he did find the perfect mix of leisure and work: a weight-guessing contest.

An ox was brought on stage before ‘dressing’, which is butcher speak for slaughter and removal of organs. Contestants could then submit guesses regarding the dressed weight for six pence each, which resulted in a variety of prizes, a cool $6,000 in modern-day dollars for the host, and a data set of 787 points for Galton to play with.

As Galton suspected, not even the few livestock experts among the group guessed the correct weight. The best estimate came in at 1,207 lbs, nine pounds off the 1,198 lbs mark. When he calculated the mean of all guesses, however, Galton was shocked: 1,197 lbs.

Imagined as a single individual, the crowd’s judgement was almost perfect.

Why Crowd Forecasting Works

James Surowiecki told this story in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. He also explained what Galton didn’t understand at the time: why big crowds are good at making accurate predictions. Surowiecki names three advantages a large group holds over an individual when it comes to judgement calls:

  1. Cognition. If our brains are like computers, stacking them in a row makes information processing faster, more stable, and less prone to subjective errors.
  2. Coordination. All groups have a shared culture. An awareness of said culture allows each member to anticipate how other members will react in certain situations.
  3. Cooperation. Subconscious agreements about how to behave within the group build trust, and so members can rely on one another, even without a central, governing entity.

That’s why bookies set odds based on community sentiment, Nate Silver correctly called the outcome for two presidential elections with big data, and weather polls are up to 20% more accurate if you throw in a lot of extra, non-expert voters.

But not all crowds are wise. Surowiecki lists four requirements:

  • Diverse opinions. If everyone interprets the circumstances the same way, the cognition advantage vanishes.
  • Decentralization. The only way people get these different views is by being in different times, places, and professions.
  • Aggregation. Without a way to add up all individual judgement calls, you just get a long list of unrelated opinions.
  • Independence. What people think can’t be influenced by what other people think.

It is the last factor, independence, that is at the core of why group efforts also often go horribly wrong.


No BBQ, No Cry

Every second of every waking hour, our brains are under attack. Dozens of cognitive biases constantly eat away at our capacity to make good decisions, and while all of them originally served a purpose, most merely cloud our vision in the modern world.

A large chunk of these faulty wirings in our brain reveals itself when we’re interacting with others. Like this one, which inspired Charles Duhigg to write The Power of Habit:

“I had been in Iraq for about two months when I heard about an officer conducting an impromptu habit modification program in Kufa, a small city ninety miles south of the capital. He was an army major who had analyzed videotapes of recent riots and had identified a pattern: Violence was usually preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space and, over the course of several hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle and all hell would break loose.

When the major met with Kufa’s mayor, he made an odd request: Could they keep food vendors out of the plazas? Sure, the mayor said. A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near the Masjid al-Kufa, or Great Mosque of Kufa. Throughout the afternoon, it grew in size. Some people started chanting angry slogans. Iraqi police, sensing trouble, radioed the base and asked U.S. troops to stand by. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 P.M., everyone was gone.”

This is called herd behavior. One hungry guy starts yelling and suddenly, everyone thinks it’s in their own best interest to hurl bricks at the police. There’s no coordination, the mob just happens to move in one direction.

Herd behavior may kick off the party, but it is another bias that gets the derailed train to really pick up steam.


A 13-Year-Old’s Nightmare

Whether we find ourselves in an impromptu stampede or a more composed group with a chosen course of action, we instantly associate our new insider status with safety. There’s nothing we hate more than jeopardizing that feeling. Enter groupthink. Another bias, it causes dysfunctional decision-making for the sake of harmony in our flock.

There are two drivers that reinforce our natural tendency to swallow our own views in favor of minimizing friction: social rank and social proof.

Social rank is our inclination to listen to whoever we perceive as a leader. Usually, that’s merely the loudest person in the room. Or the account with the most followers. Or the celebrity being paid $250,000 for a sponsorship deal. In politics, hundreds of delegates vote on decisive, historical issues after hearing a single person talk. How is that objective? It’s not.

Social proof makes most of our purchasing decisions these days. When we see that “half of all US runners wear these shoes,” that “40,000 others have subscribed,” or that “3,000 people gave this movie 5 stars,” we defer the all-important process of building trust to whoever came before us. A group we know nothing about.

Making decisions this way is a house of cards. Even 13-year-old me knows why. He told his parents that “Toby’s parents let him stay until midnight at Anna’s party too” and that “Matthew, Flo and Vanessa are allowed to as well.” It only took one phone call for this pyramid scheme to collapse. Once again, everyone was home before 10 PM.

While these mental flaws have always impacted how we choose, they’ve never been more cemented in our brains than today. There is no place where the consequences of groupthink are as severe and as omnipresent like the place we all spend most of our time at: the internet.

Of Presidents and Bandwagons

It’s fairly easy to pick a number between 0 and 3,000 lbs, write it down and silently hand it off. Voicing your opinion when your boss opens a group discussion about potentially firing a client is much harder. What’s impossible, however, is making free-spirited decisions when you’re part of a group 24/7/365. Especially if that group preprocesses all of your information.

But that’s exactly the reality we’re faced with today. We’re connected to every person on the globe, all the time. As a result, news are plastered with likes and retweets. Knowledge is full of shares, claps, and comments. Entertainment is rated, dining is reviewed, purchases verified. Even our relationships are measured in hearts, views, and follows.

Social acceptance has become the universal metric, both for making decisions and tracking their success.

In 1848, famous circus clown and later presidential candidate Dan Rice had a brilliant idea to support his fellow politician Zachary Taylor in his campaign. He would take his bandwagon, ride around town, and play music, while Taylor sat on top, spreading his agenda. This move was so successful that not only did Taylor become president, but politicians soon fought over a chance to sit on Rice’s wagon and parade around town.

It is here that the phrase “to jump on the bandwagon” originates, which, 50 years later, had become standard practice. However, it also left a bitter taste in the public’s mouth, indicating you were trying to get a splash of someone else’s glory without even considering how they made it to the top.

Today, the bandwagon effect happens billions of times a day on an individual level and it kills our independent thinking. By not practicing this skill when it doesn’t seem to matter, we also lose our capacity to do so when it does. We go online, our brains turn off, and once we leave the house, we can’t switch them back on.

But there are still those with a healthy distaste for bandwagons. Those, who prefer to explore the world on foot. I know someone like that.


Meet Alice

On Independence Day 1862, Charles Dodgson was stuck in a boat with his reverend and three daughters of a friend. To pass time on the five mile rowing trip, he told the young girls a story. A story that would continue to touch human hearts to this day.

We love Alice In Wonderland for many reasons, but above all, we love it for the little girl who stood for what she believed in, no matter how much reality began to crumble around her. Once upon a time, we were all Alice. We had a mind of our own. We were curious. Free from dogma, free from doubt.

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

But then we grew up and let society take over. Like Alice along the way, we got a little lost. We’ve been conditioned to constantly ask others for directions, without even asking ourselves where we want to go.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend my life sitting on a bandwagon, waving as it passes me by. I don’t want to be at the mercy of other people’s sense of direction. I want to explore Wonderland on my own.

That’s why I’ve built a tool that removes social proof online. It’s a free Chrome extension. Her name is Alice. With Alice, you can disable all counts of social media interactions, such as likes, comments, claps, responses, upvotes, retweets, views, and so on.

You’ll still be able to like, comment and share yourself. You just won’t know how many people have done so before you. The only way to judge if something’s worth your engagement, then, is to think for yourself.

And that will make all the difference.


Your Life Should Feel Like Wonderland

When Sir Francis Galton walked around that livestock fair, he stumbled into an important manifestation of a timeless truth: Knowledge is power. But power is raw. It can create and it can destroy.

Our giant accumulation of human opinions can help us predict the future, or turn us into a mindless herd by the time it arrives. Which role will each of us play in this? “Ah, that’s the great puzzle,” Alice would say.

Social acceptance may have become the norm, but does anyone ever decide they want to be normal? Maybe the Cheshire Cat was right. Statisticians obsessed with breeding, pedantic army majors, circus clowns on bandwagons, we’re all mad here.

I think that’s wonderful. It’s why we’re here. But it all starts with independent thinking. Remember that when you surf around our Wonderland. Like what you like. Retweet what you want to shout. Comment on what makes you think.

As long as you do that, together, there’s nowhere we can’t go.