The concept of in-groups and out-groups that shapes Japanese culture at all levels.
Uchi & soto is the Japanese cultural concept that people can be (and are) sorted into one of two groups: your in-group (uchi) or your out-group (soto). Is the person you are interacting with part of your inner-circle? Based on which group someone is in dictates how you should behave.
Uchi (内) means “inside” – it’s the familiar, the home, the groups you belong to. Soto (外) means “outside” – it’s the unknown, strangers, foreigners, the groups you aren’t a part of. People in your family, your coworkers, can be thought of as part of your inner circle, your uchi. Non-family members however, or your boss, can be considered soto. To add more complexity, these categorizations are fluid. While your boss is ordinarily considered soto, if the two of you are meeting with a customer then you’re unified in representing the company and so your manager is now considered uchi while the customer is soto. When you get back to the office however your manager goes back to being soto.
People are constantly moving between social circles based on the situation, creating a shifting web of relationships. The status of who you are interacting with, whether they are uchi or soto, influences how you behave. Soto people are shown respect and honor. This is done using keigo (“respectful language”), sometimes gifts are given, and as you honor soto people you humble yourself and members of your uchi. Foreign tourists are very much soto and as such will probably receive very polite honorable treatment.
To some degree however this honoring come with tatemae (建前, “a façade”). A person’s true feelings, their honne (本音) is reserved only for members of their uchi. So a tourist may receive great service but really getting to know people can be difficult.
We can see uchi & soto played out in architecture as well. Traditional home design has a wall surrounding the property. These walls serve more as mental barriers than physical ones. The walls form a line of demarcation between the uchi and the soto. Where the uchi and soto meet in the house is the genkan which is the entryway where you remove your outside shoes before putting on your inside slippers – physical separations to match the mental separations.
Early adopters of Parisian fashion helped make smallpox inoculations popular.
Inoculation is when you purposefully give someone an “antigenic substance” (a substance that triggers an immune response) to generate antibodies and help develop immunity to a particular disease. Around 1500 CE the Chinese developed a practice of inhaling a powder made from ground up smallpox crusts. By ingesting a less harmful version of the disease their immune systems could learn to fight the real thing. The Ethiopians and the Turks had a similar but different practice. They would make a small incision in the arm and place a piece of smallpox pustule inside, with the same goal of triggering an immune response and hopefully developing immunity.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu of England saw the Turkish method while her husband was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. She brought the technique to Western Europe and had her daughter inoculated in 1721. Despite evidence of success, westerners were skeptical of smallpox inoculations. When the Turkish procedure was done incorrectly the patient could get full-blown smallpox which has a fatality rate around 30% (or higher in children). Inoculations were an especially difficult sell in France, until smallpox killed King Louis XV and 10 of his courtiers in 1774.
After the death of Louis XV, a nineteen year old Louis XVI was suddenly very motivated to get inoculated (additionally encouraged by his wife, Marie Antoinette, who had previously been inoculated back home in Austria). Soon others in the French royal court chose to follow suit. The royal court getting inoculated helped make the procedure more acceptable but what really helped was Mary Antoinette’s hair.
To celebrate the king’s inoculation Antoinette had a special gravity-defying pouf hair style constructed, the pouf à l’inoculation. The inoculation pouf featured a rising sun representing the king, an olive tree representing peace, and the rod of asclepius representing medicine. Soon other women wanted the same trendy hair style as the queen, and as the pouf à l’inoculation became popular around Paris so too did smallpox inoculations. An inoculation is a fairly invisible procedure but a spectacular hair style was a walking billboard celebrating that you had been successfully inoculated.
In his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations, Dr. Everett Rogers theorizes how and why innovative ideas/products are adopted (or rejected). After the initial stage where innovators introduce a new product, the early adopters evaluate if it’s worthwhile. Sometimes called “lighthouse customers”, early adopters serve as messengers & guides, communicating the values of a new product to others. While members of each stage of the innovation adoption lifecycle require their own marketing strategy, a key to the early majority adopting a new product is the approval of the early adopters. Once early adopters give the thumbs up, the early majority accept the new product and success is all but inevitable.
The queen’s hairstyle influenced the royal courtiers, who influenced the bourgeoisie, who in turn influenced the population at large. Smallpox inoculation was an unknown, scary, and seemingly counter-intuitive procedure, but it was made fashionable (desirable even) through early adopters celebrating it. By making medicine a cool status symbol people everywhere wanted it.
Added info: While it’s fairly well known that Mary Antoinette never said“Let them eat cake”, and that “cake” in this case meant a form of bread, she was still unfairly vilified. Overall she seems to have been a decent queen (as monarchs go), but she did live a wildly extravagant lifestyle which certainly made her seem detached from the struggles of the common people.
The Barkley Marathons is an ultramarathon that is “set up for you to fail.”
For runners who find the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles not challenging enough, there is the ultramarathon. An ultramarathon is any race beyond 26.2 miles. Some are a set distance while others are a set time with runners going as many miles as they can within that time.
While all ultras are grueling, some are particularly noteworthy. The Badwater 135 is a 135 mile race going from the lowest point in California to the base of the highest, from Death Valley to the trailhead of Mt. Whitney. The Marathon des Sables (The Marathon of the Sands) is 150 miles of running in the Moroccan portion of the Sahara Desert where runners have to carry their own food & water. Part of the entrance fee also covers the repatriation of your corpse should you die. While there is no real ranking of the most difficult ultras, one that makes every list is the Barkley Marathons.
Set in the rugged hills of Eastern Tennessee, the Barkley Marathons is an annual race where 35 to 40 runners look to run 100+ miles in less than 60 hours. The course is 5 laps around the woods of Frozen Head State Park, up and down the hills of mostly unmarked trails. There is no electronic tracking and participants are not allowed any GPS devices, leaving runners to wayfind by map & compass. To prove you’ve made each full lap you find books in the woods at designated places and tear out the page corresponding to your running bib number. Because of the many hills the total cumulative elevation gain is around 54,000 feet, or 2 Mount Everests in 3 days.
The Barkley Marathons is universally considered one of the hardest races in the world. Most people who start never finish. The temperature changes, the distance, the lack of sleep (the race runs day & night), and the terrain (the hills, the thorns, the uneven ground) all work against you. Founded in 1986 by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, more than half of the races have ended with no-one completing the course. As of 2021 the full race has only been completed 18 times by 15 runners – around a 1.3% completion rate.
The idea for the race came from the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray from the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary (which is located beside Frozen Head State Park). In 55 hours Ray only made it 8 miles from jail because of the terrain. Cantrell felt that in 55 hours he should have been able to make it 100 miles, and so began the Barkley Marathons.
How and why would you do this?
The registration process to enter the Barkley is a secret. There is no website. Entrants pay a $1.60 entry fee and write an essay on why they should be allowed to participate. First time participants are also required to bring their license plate with them which Cantrell strings together and hangs like a curtain at the starting area. For repeat participants Cantrell requests some article of new clothes that he is in need of (flannel shirts, socks, etc.). Each year one person is allowed to participate who Cantrell knows will almost certainly fail, the “human sacrifice.” This person is given bib number 1.
Why would someone do this? As with running a regular 26.2 mile marathon, or any sort of endurance challenge, participants what to know what they are capable of. For most people winning isn’t the goal (or even an option). You’re in competition with yourself more so than with the other runners. People want to see, when really put to the test, what can they accomplish? What are they made of? The Barkley Marathons sits at the edge of impossibility, giving participants the rare chance to learn about themselves and see what they’re made of.
“If you’re going to face a real challenge it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.”
GARY “LAZARUS LAKE” CANTRELL, Barkley Marathons founder
As part of a Guinness marketing effort in the early 1990s, thousands of Irish pubs around the world have been built using standardized design templates.
Recognized around the world, the Irish pub is one of the most well-known Irish cultural exports – and where there’s an Irish pub there’s usually Guinness. In the 1980s Guinness began to track the causal relationship between new Irish pubs and regional increases in Guinness beer sales. As new pubs opened, Guinness sales went up. If Guinness could help create more Irish pubs then they could also increase their own revenue.
Ahead of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Guinness sales representatives traveled around Italy meeting with potential Italian business partners with the goal of opening Irish pubs. Their pitch was built around revenue generation and how Irish pubs have a more profitable beverage-to-food ratio than most other bars. From January to June of 1990 Italy opened 58 Irish pubs, welcoming Irish soccer fans and drinkers of all kinds. However, the critical factor to revenue generation was that these pubs needed to appear authentic – enter the “pub in a box”.
Pub in a Box
Successful Irish pubs outside of Ireland have the look & feel of the real thing. As part of their expansion effort Guinness assembled a team to analyze, quantify, & document the seemingly ineffable essence of the Irish pub. The Irish Pub Concept helped determine the critical success factors to operating an Irish pub. Chief among these factors is visual authenticity.
Founded in 1990, the Irish Pub Company of Dublin was one of the first companies to offer “authentic” Irish pubs for export. Instead of doing all of the work yourself they’ll take your dimensions and design, manufacture, and ship all of the necessary materials to you. Do you want the rural Irish pub style or the Victorian? Maybe you want the general “Celtic” style. They offer a variety of prepackaged pub types that come complete with all the knickknacks for the walls. To date they have designed & shipped over 2,000 pubs to more than 50 countries.
The Irish Pub Co. isn’t alone. Ól Irish Pubs and GGD Global also offer to design & ship you a “pub in a box”. This Disney-ized packaging of Irish culture is not without criticism. For one it raises questions of authenticity. It’s true these are pubs that have been designed & manufactured in Ireland. However, it’s difficult to claim authenticity when your pub has a fake Irish country store as part of the decor. Instead of organically collecting meaningful mementos for your bar, these superficial design packages ship all the rusty farm equipment, dusty old bottles, and framed photos of strangers you need to give the illusion of authenticity. Why take years cultivating a unique local flavor when you can just throw up a portrait of Michael Collins or the Molly Maguires?
An additional criticism is of Guinness for helping to bring these “pub in a box” bars into existence. Established Irish bars were expected to keep serving Guinness beer while the Guinness company was busy creating additional local competition. Beginning in the early ‘90s some bars boycotted and stopped serving Guinness. McGillin’s Olde Ale House of Philadelphia still does not serve Guinness as a result of the “pub in a box” fallout with Guinness.
Better than nothing
To many customers the ambiance that these cookie-cutter bars generate is all that matters – the question of authenticity never crosses their minds. The theatrical set dressing used by these bars creates a fun environment. Even for those who recognize the dubious credibility of these establishments, some feel to have a “pub in a box” Irish bar is better than having none at all.
As America has helped transform St. Patrick’s Day into an all-out extravaganza, Irish pubs (authentic or otherwise) are increasingly patronized not only by the diaspora but by people of all backgrounds. The pub offers people of all stripes an environment that is hard to find anywhere else. The long tradition of the pub serving as a gathering place for the local community can still be carried out by these “pub in a box” bars … just don’t scrutinize the bric-à-brac too closely.
Added info: If you’re interested in standardized / templated restaurant experiences, you may also be interested in learning about how the Thai government’s culinary diplomacy has successfully spread Thai restaurants around the world.
A man’s face, a rabbit – different cultures see different things because humans are hardwired to look for patterns.
Over thousands of years of evolution our brains are hardwired to find patterns. For example, finding tiger stripes in the tall grass is a pretty valuable ability. We use pattern recognition for defense, for finding information, for recognizing friendly faces, etc. As our brains are constantly searching for patterns we’re bound to get it wrong sometimes and find meaning in things where there is none.
Pareidolia is when we incorrectly recognize something where there is really nothing. This can be auditory, such as “hearing” a word in what’s really just random sounds or white noise, but most of the time pareidolia is visual. We “see” animals in clouds, we “see” butterflies in Rorschach inkblot tests. What we “see” the most however is faces. Facial pareidolia is when we see faces in things such as electrical outlets, the front of cars, in the burnt patterns of grilled cheese sandwiches, or on the surface of the moon.
Who is on the Moon?
The surface of the moon is marked by impact craters from asteroids as well as large craters of solidified ancient lava. In the same way ancient humans connected the stars to create constellations, people have looked at these lunar markings and “seen” a variety of things.
The Man in the Moon
A European tradition going back at least to the 14th century finds the whole body of a man carrying sticks on the surface of the moon. While stories vary, he’s said to be a man caught gathering sticks on a Sunday. As punishment for breaking the Sabbath he was banished to the moon. The Haida of the Pacific Northwest North America see this shape as a boy (instead of a man) who had been gathering firewood by moonlight. The boy insulted the moon and was similarly banished to the moon as punishment.
Other traditions see just the face of a man and not the whole body. Some say the man is Caine from the Bible, also sent to the moon as punishment. Talmudic folk tradition says this person is Jacob.
Jack & Jill
The nursery rhyme of Jack & Jill is based on the Scandinavian myth of Hjuki and Bila. The two children were said to be carrying a pail of water when the moon god Mani carried them to the moon (where they can be seen carrying their pail).
The Woman in the Moon
Sometimes the man/boy carrying sticks on the moon is said to be a woman (a witch of course) carrying sticks. In the southern hemisphere however, where the moon is seen upside down (depending on your cultural point of view), the Māori of New Zealand see a different shape as a woman. Rona was carrying water at night but tripped when there was insufficient moonlight to light her way. Hurt and angry she cursed the moon. The moon heard her insults and (like the punishment in the Haida legend) she’s now on the surface of the moon along with her water jug.
The Samoans say this woman is Sina, who thought the moon looked like a giant breadfruit and asked the moon to come down to let her child have a bite. The moon, insulted by this, took Sina, the tools she was working with, and her child back to the moon.
A Pair of Hands
In some Hindu traditions the hands of Astangi Mata are seen on the surface on the moon.
Name of Ali
In Islam, where there is a history of aniconism and not depicting sentient beings in art, there is a Shiʿite tradition of seeing the name of Ali (the son-in-law of Muhammad) written on the surface of the moon.
In India the Buddhist Jātaka tales has the story of a rabbit that sacrifices itself by jumping into a fire. The rabbit is saved and placed on the surface of the moon. In China the rabbit Yutu is seen on the moon preparing the elixir of life in a bowl. The Japanese also see a rabbit with a bowl but instead of a magical elixir it’s preparing rice cakes.
Mesoamerican groups also see a rabbit on the moon. As the one story goes Techuciztecatl (the moon) was hit in the face with a rabbit, the imprint of which is still on the moon.
The Selish people tell of a wolf who was romantically pursuing a toad in the moonlight. Just before being caught by the wolf the toad leaped so high she landed on the moon. Another toad on the moon is a variation of the Chinese rabbit on the moon story. In this version after the rabbit prepared the magical elixir for the Moon goddess Chang’e, the goddess drank the elixir and was transformed into a toad.
The Kimbundu tribe of Angola have the story of a prince who was only permitted to marry the daughter of the moon. Only a frog knew the way to get to the moon so he served as messenger between the Earth and the moon. Now the frog can be seen on the moon.
Thousands of years of humans have looked up at the moon from cultures around the world and have, through creativity and pareidolia, seen a variety of things. Cultures have explained these figures with creation myths or moral lessons, giving us the stories we know today.
Bonus: One of the most famous versions of the man in the moon is seen in the 1902 Georges Méliès film Le Voyage dans la Lune.
We get more happiness from the experiences we have than the stuff we buy.
Americans buy (and store) a lot of stuff, so much stuff that self-storage facilities have become a booming industry over the last decade. In 2021 an estimated 10.6% of American households (13.5 million households) rented space in self-storage facilities. These are people who have so much stuff they can’t fit it all into where they live and, instead of getting rid of some of it, have chosen to rent more space.
Physical objects last longer than fleeting experiences and so it would seem logical that the happiness derived from these objects should be equally as long lasting. Unfortunately this is not the case. Multiple studies have shown that experiences make us happier than objects do. The novelty of objects and the happiness we get from them tends to wear off fairly quickly once we become accustomed to them. Even worse, the longer objects are with us the more likely they’ll break or in some way become a frustration. Your fast new computer eventually becomes a slow & buggy headache. Further, when it comes to gift-giving, most people give physical objects that they feel will make the recipient happy, but these gifts really just contribute to the cycle of more stuff and less happiness. Experiences are different.
Experiences (not things) make us who we are
The happiness associated with an experience (a vacation, a concert, going to an art exhibit, learning a new skill, etc.) can actually increase over time. Even a negative experience can eventually become more positive after enough time passes. A rainy vacation isn’t as fun as it could have been, but after a while you can appreciate the bonding time you had indoors with your family or friends. At the very least it can make for a good story, which, talking about a bad experience has also been shown to improve your assessment of an experience.
Our experiences become a part of who we are. We bond with other people over shared experiences – we don’t bond over owning the same smartphone. Further, we are less likely to negatively compare our experiences with those of others. It’s fun to talk about traveling and share recommendations with one another. This is different than comparing possessions which (in a “keeping up with the Joneses” kind of way) tends to be negative. Is your car as nice as your coworker’s, is your house bigger than your neighbor’s, what is the number of carats in her diamond ring, etc. Unlike comparing experiences, comparing stuff doesn’t make us any happier.
In most songs the melody aligns with content of the lyrics. Sad melodies have sad lyrics, upbeat melodies have happy positive lyrics. Lyrical Dissonance is when there’s a mismatch. Most typically lyrical dissonance is found in songs that have happy melodies but, upon closer inspection, have subversively dark lyrics. This juxtaposition of incongruent melody to lyrics is found across genres.
One of the most famous examples is 1940’s You Are My Sunshine first made famous by Jimmie Davis (but recorded by many musicians over the years). The melody is so bright & cheerful it’s understandable why it’s one of the official state songs of Louisiana. The lyrics however, are about a man who is heartbreakingly alone having been abandoned by his former love and that happiness (his sunshine) has left his life.
LDN by Lily Allen is very clever example in that it explores dissonance on multiple levels. The song is about how reality is not quite what it seems, the dissonance between perceived reality vs. actual reality, and that behind a happy surface-level exterior there is frequently a darker truth.
Then there is the second level with the lyrical dissonance between the happy upbeat melody and the dark lyrics. Finally, to add yet another level, the music video for this song visualizes this dissonance with Allen moving through a saturated colorful happy London, but when she moves away from a scene the grimy darker reality is exposed. The two versions of each scene conflicting with one another.
There are many happy sounding songs with lyrics about lost loves or failed romances
• Copacabana by Barry Manilow – is about a showgirl whose bartender love is killed, their Copcacabana nightclub eventually becomes a discotheque, and she lives out her life alone, disheveled, and depressed drinking herself blind thinking of the past. • Mamma Mia by ABBA – is about a failed relationship full of regret, wishing they could have the person back. • Act Naturally by Buck Owens – the singer is going to be successful in the motion picture industry with roles of sad depressed characters just by acting naturally given his experience at being depressed & lonely. • Walking The Floor Over You by Ernest Tubb – the singer has been left by his love and now, depressed and alone, he paces around the room not knowing what to do with himself. • Once A Day by Connie Smith – the singer has been left by her love but only feels depressed once a day. Unfortunately that “once” is the entirety of the day, every day. • Lovefool by The Cardigans – the singer is desperate to be loved by someone who isn’t interested. • Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac – like many Fleetwood Mac songs, Go Your Own Way is about a failed relationship within the band. The song is about a man (Lyndsey Buckingham) doing everything for his love (Stevie Nicks) but realizing he has to end the relationship because he’s being used. • Build Me Up Buttercup by The Foundations – the singer is being strung along by a person who doesn’t really care about him, but despite this abuse he still wants a real relationship with this person. • Pretty in Pink by the Psychedelic Furs – is about a girl who has sex with various guys thinking it will make her popular, but in reality she’s treated like a joke and mocked behind her back. The John Hughes movie was named after the song, but the plot of the movie is nothing like the lyrics of the song.
Lyrical dissonance can also hide depression with upbeat music
• Dancing In the Dark by Bruce Springsteen – Springsteen was pushed to write another hit single for his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A.. Angry and pressured, he wrote Dancing In the Dark in one night. The singer is isolated, depressed, tired, and dissatisfied with his life, needing help to find a way out (and in Springsteen’s case, needing a way to escape the alienating pressure to produce hit songs). The “dancing in the dark” in this case is his moving in darkness trying to find meaning / light for his life. • Piano Man by Billy Joel – is about a piano player at a local bar observing the various regulars at the bar, each of whom have unfulfilled dreams with little chance of every finding success. • Chandelier by Sia – is about a protagonist whose excessive party lifestyle is masking pain and unresolved problems. • Another Day, Another Dollar by Wynn Stewart – is about working your life away, day after day. • Today by the Smashing Pumpkins – Today is the greatest day, because the suicidal protagonist (who has already cut himself in self-harm, “pink ribbon scars”) has decided that his life can not get any worse. The title is ironic, that from this point on things can only be better than absolute rock bottom.
Fun songs about heroin
• Lust For Life by Iggy Pop – is named for the 1956 bio film about Vincent van Gough, Lust for Life. That aside, it’s a song about recovering from heroin addiction, it references the work of William S. Burroughs, and generally speaks of depravity. It’s not the fun joie de vivre anthem people think it is, and Royal Caribbean certainly shouldn’t have used it to sell cruises. • There She Goes by The La’s – is about the love of heroin, or possibly about a woman. • I’m Waiting For The Man by the Velvet Underground – is about going up to Harlem to buy some heroin. The “man” in question is the protagonist’s drug dealer.
Going from nature, to industrial society, and back again
• Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell – is about environmentalism, regret, and the destruction of nature. • [Nothing But] Flowers by the Talking Heads – is like a reverse Big Yellow Taxi. It’s about a post-apocalyptic world where nature has reclaimed urban areas and the singer is torn between appreciating the new natural world and longing for the comforts of his former industrialized lifestyle.
Violence masked by fun melodies
• Shiny Happy People by R.E.M. – is a sardonic satirical song about the smiling happy people seen in Chinese propaganda in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Bonus: the Sesame Street parody Happy Furry Monsters really is about happy furry monsters.) • Electric Avenue by Eddy Grant – is about the 1981 Brixton Riot in London where hundreds of people were injured clashing with the police. • Mack the Knife – has a long and complicated history, but the version popularized by Bobby Darin is about a knife-wielding murderous gangster. • Jack Straw by the Grateful Dead – inspired by Of Mice and Men, Jack Straw is a murder ballad about a group of outlaws who are on the run from the law. As there is no honor among thieves members start killing each other off. (Bonus: this video includes the legendary naked Oregon pole guy.) • Maxwell’s Silver Hammer by the Beatles – is about a hammer wielding murderer. • Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones – is an incredibly dark song about West African slaves being brought to the United States and the female slaves being raped at night by their owner. • Pumped up Kicks by Foster The People – is about a kid named Robert dreaming of shooting his classmates at school. • I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats – is about an actual school shooting in San Diego in 1979. The shooter, Brenda Spencer was asked why she killed people on the playground and she said “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”
And of course, happy songs protesting war
• Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival – used in montage scenes for Vietnam war movies, in ad campaigns to help sell blue jeans, and even without permission by the ultimate fortunate son Donald Trump (Trump, his staff, and his MAGA followers being too dumb to see the irony of its use) Fortunate Son is arguably the most famous anti-war anthem. Behind the up-tempo rock melody is a social criticism of how the unaffected elite social class wage wars that poor kids have to go fight & die in. • 99 Red Balloons by Nena – is about the futility of war and how something as innocent as releasing balloons near the Berlin Wall could cause military escalation and eventual mutual destruction on both sides. • Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen – like Dancing In the Dark, this song is also on the Born in the U.S.A. album. It’s a protest song. It’s about a disillusioned working-class veteran who society has rejected & alienated. It is not the pro-America Reagan-era anthem most people think it is, but rather it’s a scathing criticism of 1980s America.
Dark Melodies, Positive Messages
Not as common, but lyrical dissonance is also found the other way around with dark melodies & positive lyrics. Black Sabbath’s 1970 song War Pigs is very dark melodically, but the lyrics are strongly anti-war. War Pigs is like a darker sounding Fortunate Son. It’s a criticism of the Vietnam War (and war in general) and how the rich & powerful benefit from war while facing none of the dangers, sending the poor off to die.
Added info: Musical dissonance/incongruity can also be found in a slightly different way in TV & film. This is where the mood of the song being played does not align to what is taking place in the scene. Frequently this is done with a happy song being played as a counterpoint to a dark disturbing scene.
This has become a common trope in entertainment today but a few early examples helped define the concept. • David Lynch employed this concept in Blue Velvetwith Roy Orbison’s In Dreams. • The X-Filesused Johnny Mathis’s Wonderful! Wonderful! multiple times in perhaps the show’s most infamous episode Home. • However, no director is more famous for this than Quentin Tarantino. One of Tarantino’s earliest and best known uses of this technique is in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and its well-known use of the Stealers Wheel song Stuck in the Middle with You.
Just because someone else has it worse than you doesn’t mean you don’t have problems.
The Fallacy of Relative Privation is a faulty way of thinking where someone dismisses a problem because there are worse problems in the world. For example “Oh you think you have a bad headache? Well some people live with migraines for days at a time.” The idea of this kind of statement is that you should feel better, comforted by the knowledge that the situation could be worse. Unfortunately, knowing that someone has a worse headache won’t improve the condition of your headache. A more severe problem doesn’t negate a less severe problem.
This fallacy also goes the other direction. When judging people who are more affluent someone might say “What do they have to complain about? They’re rich & famous.” Just because someone is better-off than you doesn’t mean they don’t have problems. The idea of “First World problems” touches on this. While the day-to-day problems of a wealthier society are not as significant as the problems of a poorer country, wealthy people / societies still have problems.
If we follow the fallacy of relative privation to its logical conclusion, only the person with the absolute worst problem(s) could ever have any right to complain about anything. Obviously this is wrong. Therefor when considering problems, your own or the problems of others, remember that all problems are problems regardless of severity or whose they are.
The data you don’t see is just as important as the data you do.
Survivorship bias is when you aren’t working with all of the information needed to make a complete analysis. We tend to focus on the information we have and forget to consider the information we don’t have (which makes sense).
During WWII Hungarian mathematician Abraham Wald helped the US military determine where to add reinforcing armor on bomber planes. If you reinforce the whole plane it’s too heavy so you want to only add weight where absolutely needed. The military collected data from returning planes on where they had taken damage (from bullets, shrapnel, etc). From this they created scatter plots on plane diagrams showing where the damage tended to be. The initial military analysis was to reinforce the heaviest hit areas but Wald realized this was survivorship bias.
The military was only accounting for the planes that made it back, and weren’t accounting for the planes that were shot down and never returned. The areas a plane could get shot, but still return, must not need additional armor to fly. Therefor the areas with no damage (the cockpit, the engines, etc) must be the places needing reinforcement since the planes that never returned were probably hit in those places. The military had worked with the data they had but they forgot to account for the planes that never made it back, the data that was missing.
The Value of Failure
We tend to over-appreciate success stories and under-appreciate failures. Success stories are easy to find while failures are usually ignored or lost to time. Survivorship bias comes up frequently in think-pieces about successful people, businesses, investments, etc. The focus tends to be on the “winners” but rarely on the “losers.”
While successful people can give advice on what to do, people who failed can give advice on what not to do (which is just as valuable). Successful people giving advice is only one part of the data, it’s survivorship bias because we’re only hearing from the ones who “made it” and not the ones who didn’t. You hear how Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates successfully went from college dropout to billionaires, but there aren’t many stories on the majority of college dropouts who don’t become billionaires.
In the Red
In the world of business we mostly hear from the businesses that are successfully still around, and not from the ones who closed. Most new businesses, around 90%, will fail but we rarely get advice from them after they do. Instead we hear inspirational stories about the very small percentage of scrappy startups that were incredibly lucky who went from operating in garages to being juggernauts, such as Amazon.
Investments are similar. Funds that are losers are only allowed to lose for so long. When an investment company closes a fund the fund ceases to exist and no longer drags down the company’s overall performance. By removing/hiding the failures you can get a false overall sense of positive performance. This also means that the funds available to invest in are either proven winners or brand new funds, never any long-time losers.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
We can see survivorship bias in architecture and anthropology. The best built and/or most appreciated buildings of the past continue to stand, while the weak or unwanted buildings are brought down. This can lead to a false sense that all buildings of the past were stronger or more beautiful than today’s, but there were plenty of weak and/or ugly buildings in the past just like today.
Similarly when studying ancient cultures, it’s easy to account for cultures who built permanent structures with durable materials that have survived to be studied. But cultures that utilized temporary structures, moveable structures, or buildings made from biodegradable materials are harder to document. We have to rely on other clues to understand these groups and account for them in history.
When I Was Younger
Survivorship bias can also apply to things that are more subjective. It’s easier to remember the good art than all the bad art that got thrown away. People make statements that music / TV / movies were better in some previous time period than today, but they frequently forget all of the bad music / TV / movies of that previous time period. It’s a survivorship biased rose-tinted view of the past.
Today’s music is made up of new songs, both good and bad. When playing songs from the past however radio stations / channels tend to only play the successful hit songs and skip the bad songs, adding to the survivorship bias. It’s easier to remember the hits that are still played today than it is to remember the songs you never wanted to listen to. Even when you’re choosing the music to listen to you tend to pick the songs you want to hear and skip all of the songs you don’t. Sure Nirvana’s generational anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit came out in 1991, but so did Tom Cochrane’s Life Is A Highway (a song which is straight-up trash).
In analyzing a situation, thinking about the secrets of success, or flashing-back to a past that never really existed, remember to factor in all of the data you are forgetting.
Belief in conspiracy theories comes from a desire to make sense of complex or troubling events. They try to reduce the anxiety and confusion generated by things that are hard to understand and/or don’t fit with one’s world view.
The Jews of Medieval Europe were often believed to have committed a variety of nefarious plots. From being responsible for the death of Jesus, to poisoning water wells during the Black Death, to a sinister association with money (which serves as a foundation for later conspiracy theories), the Jews have been victims of conspiracy theories for thousands of years. But why conspiracy theories are so attractive to so many people is complicated.
Out of Control
Conspiracy theories are a way of making sense of events that are hard to understand. Humans dislike uncertainty, so having an explanation (however flawed) is more attractive than doubt. Uncertainty generates anxiety and stressful times actually increase the number of people turning to conspiracy theories as a way to alleviate their anxiety.
For example, there are numerous conspiracy theories surrounding coronavirus – it was engineered by the Chinese government, or it was engineered by Bill Gates, or it’s being spread by 5G cell phone towers. The 1889 global influenza pandemic (the “Russian flu”) was blamed on electric lights, telegraph poles, and even just electricity in general. What’s old is new again. People are afraid of a deadly virus that isn’t fully understood and so they blame a new technology that they also don’t fully understand.
The world is largely out of our control and major world events can remind us of how little control we have. Conspiracy theories give a feeling of control to people who feel anxious about a situation they can’t control. Many events are the complex result of a confluence of factors, and sometimes things just happen at random. Neither of these make people feel good. Complexity is not the soundbite people want. Instead it is much more attractive to believe in a fictional simplistic narrative where there are clearly defined good guys and bad guys and you can blame the bad guys for what’s happening. People like easy to understand stories rather than complicated chaos. In having a target to blame, a conspiracy theory believer can take action and have some degree of control rather than being powerless to a complicated abstract concept.
Humans are also pattern recognition machines. Unfortunately we also imagine patterns where there are none. Gamblers and sports fans see streaks and patterns where mathematically there is nothing more than normal chance. People who see non-existent patterns in normal life are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. In conspiracy theories people construct connections and see patterns where there are none in an attempt to create a story that feels better than uncertainty.
On the Inside
While people who believe in conspiracy theories come from all economic levels, genders, political affiliations, and racial backgrounds, there are a few patterns that exist. For one, people who believe in one conspiracy theory are statistically more likely to believe in additional unrelated theories. Also, belief in conspiracy theories is fueled by the anxiety of not understanding why things happen, and the people who are most likely to not understand things are the less educated.
While conspiracy theories range from the small to large, major world events are more likely to be the focus of conspiracy theories because the effects of such events are so impactful. People want big meaningful events to have equally big and meaningful explanations. This is proportionality bias. The JFK assassination is the focus of numerous conspiracy theories, but the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan is not. Even though both events are similar in nature, for most people nothing really resulted in the failed assassination of Reagan and so a simple explanation was sufficient. For the JFK assassination however, the idea that one deranged person could cause so much chaos wasn’t a big enough answer for such a big event.
On the Inside
Ultimately believing in conspiracy theories is about belief – it is not about facts. People who believe in conspiracy theories have an insular and circular logic that shields them from the real world. Facts that contradict a conspiracy theory are met with suspicion and are thought of as part of the conspiracy. At the same time the absence of proof to support a conspiracy theory can be seen as proof of the conspiracy theory. It’s an echo chamber shielded from reality.
In 2016 Dr. David Grimes created a formula for how long a conspiracy could realistically stay a secret before being exposed to the public. The more people involved, and the more time that passes, the more likely that someone will say something. For example, the moon landing involved around 411,000 NASA employees. As of today it is extremely unlikely that the moon landing was a hoax because it would have meant that almost half a million people were sworn to secrecy and not a single one of them ever let anything slip for decades. Grimes’s formula demonstrates just how unlikely it is for most conspiracy theories to be true. Information wants to be free. But belief in conspiracy theories continues.
Conspiracy theories are contradictorily both known and unknown. The believer has secret knowledge but also lacks any real evidence. That a conspiracy could have been partially leaked but no real evidence is revealed is very unlikely. But believers are not deterred because conspiracy theories aren’t about facts.
In an age of unprecedented access to information some people have sought emotional refuge in baseless fictional narratives. Conspiracy theories are a symptom, but not the cause, of ignorance. It is easier to prevent a conspiracy theory from taking hold than to change someone’s mind once they believe. For those who already believe, psychologists say it is better to treat the root cause of a believer’s ignorance than to try and dissuade them from a particular conspiracy theory.
So whether it’s the suspicion of witches, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Communist red scare, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, crop circles, water fluoridation, Area 51, the Royal Family assassinated Princess Diana, 9/11 was an inside job, chemtrails, Obama wasn’t born in America, QAnon, flat earth theory, the deep state, anti-vaxxers, or that coronavirus is being spread by cell phone towers … knowledge from reliable sources and improving critical thinking skills are the best ways to reduce belief in conspiracy theories.