Tag: History

Finding Truth in History

If we are to learn from the past, does the account of it have to be true? One would like to think so. Otherwise you might be preparing for the wrong battle. There you are, geared up for mountains, and instead you find swamps. You've done a bunch of reading, trying to understand the terrain you are about to enter, only to find it useless. The books must have been written by crazy people. You are upset and confused. Surely there must be some reliable, objective account of the past. How are you supposed to prepare for the possibilities of the future if you can't trust the accuracy of the reports on anything that has come before?

For why do we study history, anyway? Why keep a record of things that have happened? We fear that if we don't, we are doomed to repeat history; but often that doesn't seem to stop us from repeating it. And we have an annoying tendency to remember only the things which don't really challenge or upset us. But still we try to capture what we can, through museums and ceremonies and study, because somehow we believe that eventually we will come to learn something about why things happen the way they do. And armed with this knowledge, we might even be able to shape our future.

This “problem of historical truth” is explored by Isaiah Berlin in The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History. He explains that Tolstoy was driven by a “desire to penetrate to first causes, to understand how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise.” We can understand this goal – because if we know how the world really works, we know everything.

Of course, it's not that simple, and — spoiler alert — Tolstoy never figured it out. But Berlin's analysis can illuminate the challenges we face with history and help us find something to learn from.

Tolstoy's main problem with historical efforts at the time was that they were “nothing but a collection of fables and useless trifles. … History does not reveal causes; it presents only a blank succession of unexplained events.” Seen like this, the study of history is a waste of time, other than for trivia games or pub quizzes. Being able to recite what happened is supremely uninteresting if you can't begin to understand why it happened in the first place.

But Tolstoy was also an expert at tearing down the theories of anyone who attempted to make sense of history and provide the why. He thought that they “must be imposters, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behavior, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.”

History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did.

And therein lies the spectrum of the problem for Tolstoy. History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did. A battle is more than dates and times, but trying to trace the real impact of the decisions of Napoleon or Churchill is a fool's errand. There is too much going on – too many decisions and interactions happening in every moment – for us to be able to conclude cause and effect with any certainty. After leaving an ice cube to melt on a table, you can't untangle exactly what happened with each molecule from the puddle. That doesn't mean we can't learn from history; it means only that we need to be careful with the lessons we draw and the confidence we have in them.

Berlin explains:

There is a particularly vivid simile [in War and Peace] in which the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because the ram duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine that he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter – a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the other sheep can fathom. For Tolstoy, Napoleon is just such a ram, and so to some degree is Alexander, and indeed all the great men of history.

Arguing against this view of history was N. I. Kareev, who said:

…it is men, doubtless, who make social forms, but these forms – the ways in which men live – in their turn affect those born into them; individual wills may not be all-powerful, but neither are they totally impotent, and some are more effective than others. Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him.

This means that studying the past is important for making better decisions in the future. If we can't always follow the course of cause and effect, we can at least discover some very strong correlations and act accordingly.

We have a choice between these two perspectives: Either we can treat history as an impenetrable fog, or we can figure out how to use history while accepting that each day might reveal more and we may have to update our thinking.

Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like the scientific method to me – a preference for updating the foundation of knowledge versus being adrift in chaos or attached to a raft that cannot be added to.

Berlin argues that Tolstoy spent his life trying to find a theory strong enough to unify everything. A way to build a foundation so strong that all arguments would crumble against it. Although that endeavor was ambitious, we don't need to fully understand the why of history in order to be able to learn from it. We don't need the foundation of the past to be solid and fixed in order to gain some insight into our future. We can still find some truth in history.


Funnily enough, Berlin clarifies that Tolstoy “believed that only by patient empirical observation could any knowledge be obtained.” But he also believed “that simple people often know the truth better than learned men, because their observation of men and nature is less clouded by empty theories.”

Unhelpfully, Tolstoy's position amounts to “the more you know, the less you learn.”

The answer to finding truth in history is not to be found in Tolstoy's writing. He was looking for “something too indivisibly simple and remote from normal intellectual processes to be assailable by the instruments of reason, and therefore, perhaps, offering a path to peace and salvation.” He never was able to conclude what that might be.

But there might be an answer in how Berlin interprets Tolstoy's major dissonance in life, the discrepancy that drove him and was never resolved. Tolstoy “tried to resolve the glaring contradiction between what he believed about men and events, and what he thought he believed, or ought to believe.”

Finding truth in history is about understanding that this truth is not absolute. In this sense, truth is based on perspective. The perspective of the person who captured it and the person interpreting it. And the perspective of the translators and editors and primary sources. We don't get to be invisible observers of moments in the past, and we don't get to go into other minds. The best we can do is keep our eyes open and keep our biases in check. And what history can teach us is found not just in the moments it tries to describe, but also in what we choose to look at and how we choose to represent it.

Loops of Progress, or How Modern Are You?

On your way to work, you grab breakfast from one of the dozen coffee shops you pass. Most of the goods you buy get delivered right to your door. If you live in a large city and have a car, you barely use it, preferring Uber or ride-sharing services. You feel modern. Your parents didn’t do any of this. Most of their meals were consumed at home, and they took their cars everywhere, in particular to purchase all the stuff they needed.

You think of your life as being so different from theirs. It is. You think of this as progress. It isn’t.

We tend to consider social development as occurring in a straight line: we progressed from A to B to C, with each step being more advanced and, we assume, better than the one before. This perception isn’t always accurate, though. Part of learning from the past is appreciating that we humans have tried many different ways to organize ourselves, with lots of repetitions. If we want success now, we need to understand our past efforts in order to see what changes might be needed this time around.

Would you be surprised to learn that in Victorian London (the nineteenth century), the vast majority of people ate their food on the run? That ride sharing was common? Or that you could purchase everything you needed without ever leaving your house?

To be fair, these situations didn’t exist in the exact instantiations that they do today. Obviously, there was no amazon.com back then. But while the parallels are not exact, they are worth exploring, if only to remind us that no matter the array of pressures we face as a society, there are only so many ways we can organize ourselves.

To start with, street food was the norm. All classes except the very wealthy (thus, essentially, anyone who worked) ate on the run. At outdoor stalls or indoor counters. Food purchased from street vendors or chophouses (the Victorian equivalent of fast-food outlets). Food was purchased and consumed outside of the home, on the commute to or from work.

Why? Why would everyone from the middle classes to the working poor eat out?

Unlike today, eating out was cheaper then. As Judith Flanders explains in The Victorian City:

Today, eating out is more expensive than cooking at home, but in the nineteenth century the situation was reversed. Most of the working class lived in rooms, not houses. They might have had access to a communal kitchen, but more often they cooked in their own fireplace: to boil a kettle before going to work, leaving the fire to burn when there was no one home, was costly, time-consuming and wasteful. … Several factors — the lack of storage space, routine infestations of vermin and being able, because of the cost, to buy food only in tiny quantities — meant that storing any foodstuff, even tea, overnight was unusual.

Even food delivery isn’t new.

Every eating place expected to deliver meals, complete with cutlery, dishes and even condiments, which were brought by waiters who then stayed on, if wanted, to serve. Endless processions of meals passed through the streets daily. … Large sums of money were not necessary for this service.

People need to eat. It’s fundamental. No matter what living conditions we find ourselves in, the drive away from starvation means that we are willing to experiment in how we organize to get our food.

Public transportation took hold in Victorian London and is another interesting point of comparison. Then, its use was not due to a sense of civic responsibility or concerns about the environment. Public transportation succeeded because it was faster. Most cities had grown organically, and streets were not designed for the volume they had to carry in the nineteenth century. There was no flow, and there were no traffic rules. The population was swelling and road surfaces would be devastating to today’s SUVs. It was simply painful to get anywhere.

Thus the options exploded. Buses and cabs to get about the city. Stagecoaches and the railroad for longer excursions (and commutes!). And the Underground. Buses “increased the average speed of travel to nearly six miles an hour; with the railway this figure rose to over twelve, sometimes double that.” Public transportation allowed people to move faster, and “therefore, areas that had traditionally been on the edges of London now housed commuters.”

As a direct consequence of the comparable efficiency of the public transportation system, “most people could not imagine ever owning a private carriage. It was not just the cost of the carriage itself, of the horse and its accoutrements — harnesses and so on — but the running costs: the feed and care of the horse, the stabling, as well as the taxes that were imposed on carriages throughout the century.” As well as the staff. A driver, footmen, their salaries and uniforms.

A form of ride-sharing was also common then. For travel outside of the city, one could hire a post-chaise. “A post-chaise was always hired privately, to the passenger’s own schedule, but the chaise, horses, driver and postboys all belonged to the coaching inn or a local proprietor.”

Aside from the cost of owning your own transportation, neither the work day nor the city infrastructure was designed for reliance on individual transport. London in the nineteenth century (and to a large extent today) functioned better with an extensive public transport system.

There was no social safety net. You worked or you died.

Finally, living in London in the nineteenth century was very much about survival. There was no social safety net. You worked or you died. And given the concentration of wealth in the top tier of society, there was a lot of competition among the working poor for a slight edge that would mean the difference between living another day and starvation.

This situation is likely part of the reason that sellers went to buyers, rather than the other way around. Unlike today, when so many bookstores are owned by the same company or when a conglomerate makes multiple brands of “unique” luxury goods, a watercress girl owned and sold only the watercress she could carry. And this watercress was no different from the bundles the girl one street over had. The competition to sell was fierce.

And so, as Flanders describes, in the first half of the nineteenth century, street vendors in all neighborhoods sold an astonishing array of goods and services. First chimney sweeps, then milkmaids; “the next sellers were the watercress girls, followed by the costermongers, then the fishmongers’, the butchers’ and the bakers’ boys to take the daily orders.” Next came the guy selling horsemeat.

Other goods regularly available from itinerant sellers in the suburbs included: footstools; embroidery frames; clothes horses, clothes-pegs and clothes line; sponges, chamois leathers, brushes and brooms; kitchen skewers, toasting-forks and other tinware; razors and penknives; trays, keyrings, and small items of jewellery; candlesticks, tools, trivets, pots and pans; bandboxes and hatboxes; blackleading for kitchen ranges and grates, matches and glue; china ornaments and crockery; sheets, shirts, laces, thread, ribbons, artificial flowers, buttons, studs, handkerchiefs; pipes, tobacco, snuff, cigars; spectacles, hats, combs and hairbrushes; firewood and sawdust.

You didn’t have to leave your house to purchase items for meeting your daily needs.

This is not to say that Victorian London had everything figured out or that progress is always a loop. For example, there is no time in history in which it was better to be a woman than it is now, and modern medicine and the scientific method are significant steps up over what has come before. But reading these accounts of how London functioned almost two hundred years ago hints that a lot of what we consider modern innovations have been tried before.

Maybe ways of organizing come and go depending on time and place. When things are useful, they appear; as needs change, those things disappear. There really is no new way of doing business.

But we can look at the impact of social progress, how it shapes communities, and what contributes to its ebb and flow. Flanders notes that in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a shift to going out to shop in stores. What changes did this give rise to? And how did those changes contribute to the loop we are experiencing and to our current desire to have everything brought to us?

The Trojan Horse: How Marketers, Retailers, and Artists Conceal Their True Intents

“Image: The Trojan Horse. Your guile is hidden inside a magnificent gift that proves irresistible to your opponent. The walls open. Once inside, wreak havoc.”
— Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power


The Basics

The story of the Trojan Horse is perhaps the most famous of all the Greek myths.

The Trojan War had been going on for a decade, with no end in sight and many Greek heroes dying, when Odysseus came up with an idea that won the war for the Greeks.

Because the Trojans considered horses to be sacred, the Greeks built a large, hollow wooden horse. To make it even more irresistible, they used wood from Cornel trees (also sacred) to construct it. Odysseus and a group of men hid inside while the rest of the Greek army pretended to leave the area, destroying their camp and boarding their ships.

After some debate as to whether the Greeks could be trusted, the Trojans dragged the giant horse inside the walls of the city. The end of the ten-year siege was a huge relief to the people of Troy, who spent the night celebrating.

By midnight, everyone was in a drunken stupor. Odysseus then acted, signaling to the Greek fleet to return and leading his men out of the Trojan Horse to kill the unsuspecting guards and open the doors. The Greeks then had access to the city. They massacred the Trojans, keeping a few alive as slaves. Some of the soldiers traveled further afield, forming settlements which are supposed to have led to the creation of Rome.

Ancient Greeks saw this myth as factual, with the events occurring between 1300–1200 BC in the area near Dardanelles.

There is some archeological evidence for the existence of Troy, although most historians now accept that the story is mythological. There is probably still some basis in actual events, as sieges were common during that era.

Myth or not, the fact that the story of the Trojan Horse has survived for over 3,000 years indicates its power and utility as a mental model.

Why, exactly, has this particular story retained its grip on our imagination for so long?

We can only speculate as to why. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the Trojan Horse is not just a story. It's also a parable, a metaphor, an invitation to be ingenious, an example of out-of-the-box thinking.

Reading it has sparked so many ideas for so many people. It is at once practical and bizarre.

Using it as a mental model, we can apply the Trojan Horse story to an array of disciplines and situations. As a concept, it can be used for both good and evil.

The Trojan Horse in Marketing and Business

We live in an era when we are all besieged by marketing messages every moment of the day. Like the Trojans hiding in their city, we have learned to shut these messages out — we use advertisement blockers, throw away junk mail unopened, ignore billboards, and filter out spam emails.

In order to gain our attention, marketers often use a technique similar to the Trojan Horse. They offer people an apparent gift — a free ebook, a discount card, a sample. Only once this item has been enjoyed can its real purpose can be enacted.

A good heuristic when things seem too good to be true is to just forget about them.

Many marketing lessons can be found in the original myth.

The Greeks chose a form which appealed to their targets, using a sacred creature and type of wood. Likewise, marketers must fit their gift to the audience, making it appealing to their basic interests. The Greeks used innovative thinking, inventing a tactic which was new and therefore unexpected. If they had tried the same thing again, it would have had no effect.

Once a marketing technique is recognizable, its impact wanes. No one is going to click on a “5 ways to kill belly fat” pop-up anymore, or fall for an email from a Nigerian prince telling you just how much money you left there, or enjoy a free executable file that will clean your computer. These ruses are now well known and we ignore them. But when these techniques were new and unfamiliar, huge numbers of people were attracted by the offers.

Some examples of Trojan Horse marketing include:

  • Offering the first chapter of a book for free to people who join an email list — Having read the chapter and received more emails which connect them to the author, people are more likely to buy the full book than they would have been if they had only seen an advert.
  • Creating free high-quality blog content for an audience to enjoy — Once people are interested in the blogger's voice and expertise, the marketing can begin. Many people will at some point want to support the person whose work they have been consuming for free. This support might include buying courses, books, or consulting services or donating to a Patreon page. We developed the learning community as not only a bunch of extras for people but also a means to support the free content we provide.
  • Writing a book detailing an expert's specialized knowledge — While sales of the book are often not high, having it published benefits the expert's business. For example, Ryan Holiday has stated that his books have led to more income from speaking and consulting than from actual book sales.
  • Making the most income from revenue streams which do not appear to be the main objective of a business — For example, high-fashion brands often make more money from perfume than from clothing, cinemas rely on sales of popcorn and drinks, and some restaurants profit predominantly from sales of alcohol.
  • Creating viral branded content which people share and engage with due to its being interesting and often amusing — For example, just try to watch the Android “Friends Furever” video without forwarding it to at least one person. The adorable video wraps up a marketing message, making people more likely to pay attention to it.

In his book Permission Marketing, Seth Godin discusses the idea under a different name. When you let people into your inbox, you're letting people into your city. They might be there for good or bad reasons; it's hard to know in advance. In a blog post, Godin explains how the concept works:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Pay attention is a key phrase here, because permission marketers understand that when someone chooses to pay attention they are actually paying you with something precious…

Real permission works like this: if you stop showing up, people complain, they ask where you went…

Permission is like dating. You do not start by asking for the sale at first impression. You earn the right, over time, bit by bit…

In order to get permission, you make a promise. You say, “I will do x, y and z, I hope you will give me permission by listening.” And then, this is the hard part, that's all you do. You do not assume you can do more. You do not sell the list or rent the list or demand more attention…

In the book, Godin explains how Amazon has used permission marketing to build an empire:

Using permission, Amazon can fundamentally reconfigure the entire book industry, disintermediating and combining every step of the chain until there are only two: the writer and Amazon … Amazon appears to be building a permission asset, not a brand asset.

Amazon began by offering cheap books. Once people fell for that initial Trojan Horse, Amazon offered them other products and gradually captured more and more of their online spending. Services such as Prime, Echo, and Kindle are contained within the Trojan Horse — that first cheap purchase someone makes.

Just as the Greeks invested effort into building the horse, Amazon has invested millions in technology and infrastructure. This is the essence of Trojan Horse marketing: offering a gift (with Amazon, this includes free trials, discounts, and generally low costs for popular items) and then upselling and upselling and upselling.

On the topic of Amazon Prime, John Warrillow writes:

Like many subscription models, Amazon Prime is a Trojan horse that is expanding the list of products consumers are willing to buy from Amazon and giving the eggheads in Seattle a mountain of customer data to sift through.

The Trojan Horse and the Benjamin Franklin Effect

Let’s say there is a person who dislikes you — a lot. It’s fine; this happens to all of us.

But what if you need to form an allegiance with this person? Or maybe they don’t dislike you, they just don’t know you. Either way, you need to build a relationship with them.

What should you do? Ask them out for coffee, offer a gift, ask someone for an email introduction?

One solution is to utilize the Benjamin Franklin effect, essentially a sort of Trojan Horse approach to building relationships.

The Benjamin Franklin effect is a psychological phenomenon in which we begin to like people we have done favors for. Essentially, the initial favor is the Trojan Horse, containing within it a relationship. Franklin’s original story, told in his autobiography, details how he used this during his time as a legislator:

Having heard that he [a rival who disliked Franklin] had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return'd it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour.

When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

We can use Franklin’s technique as a Trojan Horse to gain the respect, friendship, and cooperation of other people.

Asking someone for a favor indicates that we already respect them and consider them to have something we lack — a form of flattery which serves as the gift. Once they have accepted this and performed the favor, it can be leveraged.

Examples of the conjunction between the Benjamin Franklin effect and the Trojan Horse include:

  • Salesmen use the foot-in-the-door technique. This involves making a small request (for example, filling in a survey), then trying to sell you something.
  • If someone you know has a particular area of expertise, try texting or emailing them (rather than Googling it) whenever you have a related question. One Reddit user on r/LifeProTips recommends texting your mother simple questions on a regular basis to strengthen the relationship. Doing so indicates to people that we consider them knowledgeable, making them more likely to respond to larger requests.

Robert Greene also recommends a number of Trojan Horse–style tactics in The 48 Laws of Power, concealing true intentions within a facade and using specific behavior to achieve goals.

Use selective honesty and judgment to disarm … One sincere and honest move will cover over dozens of dishonest ones. Open-hearted gestures of honesty and generosity bring down the guard of even the most suspicious people. Once your selective honesty opens a hole in their armor, you can deceive and manipulate them at will. A timely gift—a Trojan horse—will serve the same purpose.

In The 33 Strategies of War, Greene returns to the same analogy:

[B]efriend your enemies, worming your way into their hearts and minds. As your targets’ friend, you will naturally learn their needs and insecurities, the soft interior they try so hard to hide. The guard will come down with a friend. And even later on, when you play out your treacherous intentions, the lingering resonance of your friendship will still confuse them, letting you keep on manipulating them by toying with their emotions or pushing them into overreactions. For a more immediate effect, you can try a sudden act of kindness and generosity that gets people to lower their defenses—the Trojan Horse strategy. …

When confronted by something difficult or thorny, do not be distracted or discouraged by its formidable outer appearance; think your way into the soft core, the center from which the problem blossoms… Knowing the problem’s core gives you great power to change it from the inside out. Your first thought must always be to infiltrate the center… never to whale away at the periphery or just pound at the walls.

How Artists Change Your Mind

Botticelli primavera

Many artists (a term used here to denote anyone who creates something, not just those who paint canvases) have used their work to conceal important agendas.

The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Conor Oberst wrap political and social messages within beautiful music.

Bloggers such as Seth Godin and James Altucher envelop key life lessons and paradigm-altering concepts within humorous anecdotes and metaphors. The women who embroidered the Bayeux Tapestry added their own subtle views to the panoramas of war and victory.

Companies such as Toms, Ben & Jerry, and Lush use the popularity of their products to fund real change. Johannes Vermeer's most serene paintings tell complex, taboo narratives.

Botticelli's La Primavera (above) is actually an exploration of his interest in horticulture, not a study of human figures.

Consider Gatsby, throwing lavish parties with the sole purpose of attracting Daisy back to him. This is the essence of much of art — an attractive and appealing exterior conceals the true purpose.

People use whatever means are available to them to express their views and attitudes. Sometimes this is intentional; sometimes the Trojan Horse is built unconsciously. The purpose is to get a message across in a form which is palatable to people.

Few of us enjoy or engage with straightforward expressions of a particular agenda. But when it comes in an interesting form, we pull the wooden horse within the city walls with glee. Just as with marketing messages, we have become desensitized to these sorts of messages. Artists must now use ingenuity and creativity to spread their ideas.

As Walter Hamady writes:

The book as a structure is the Trojan horse of art — it is not feared by average people. It is a familiar form in the world, and average people will take it from you and examine it whereas a painting, poem, sculpture, or print they will not.

This concept of art as a Trojan Horse is extremely important.

Farnam Street itself serves as a Trojan Horse. Our intention is to spread an appreciation of the importance of clear thinking, lifelong learning, making good decisions and living a meaningful life.

If upon your first visit to this site, you had found nothing but a list of instructions, the chances are high that you would have ignored it and never returned. Through the use of stories, analogies and careful explorations of important ideas, this agenda has reached and inspired many people. When you read a post about a military tactic or the life of a historic figure, the purpose is not the narrative alone. It is about much more than that — a way of changing how people think.

In Contagious, Jonah Berger explains the power of stories as a Trojan Horse:

People don’t just share information, they tell stories. But just like the epic tale of the Trojan Horse, stories are vessels that carry things such as morals and lessons. Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter. So, we need to build our own Trojan horses, embedding our products and ideas in stories that people want to tell… we need to make our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.

Francis T. Marchese also advocates the Trojan Horse approach to art:

The Trojan Horse is an artifact that possesses a host of hidden agendas. Rather than presenting a one-off manifestation, the Trojan Horse offers many platoons, capable of strategically addressing the wider culture, pointing to replicable solutions through demonstration. Thus, an artwork acting like a Trojan Horse can contain the seeds of multiple strategic outcomes.

In short, when we want to spread an idea or spark change, we would do well to learn from the ancient Greeks.

People have strong defenses against anything which challenges their worldviews. By packaging it in a format which appeals to them, we can pass on meaning. Artists, marketers, and politicians (among others) have long realized the importance of this approach. It is a means of injecting our ideas, both good and bad, into people’s worlds through an apparent gift.

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    Trojan Horse Image via PBS.

Human Misjudgment and the American Revolution

We try to look at mental models in history through the lens of people who got it right, but once in a while, it’s beneficial to examine a model through the lens of those who got it wrong.

In this case, let's take a look at the remarkable series of misjudgments that resulted in the British losing their American colonies.

Our list of mental models includes 24 models in the human nature + judgment category, and at least seven of those were a factor in the British being driven out of America. Sometimes it helps to understand how great the consequences of these very human tendencies can be. And, perhaps more significantly, how a large group of people can succumb to them at the same time.

Bias from Incentives

Money, the root of stupidity.

In the mid-18th century, the British had a parliament, but it was very different from what exists today. As Barbara W. Tuchman describes in The March of Folly, the House of Commons was made up mostly of second sons of the nobility – the landowning class. Urban centers such as London were poorly represented, and not surprisingly Parliament tended to pass laws that were primarily good for its members.

A lot of the issues which ultimately led to the revolution were about money.

The British wanted to tax the colonies, as Tuchman explains, so they would at least pay for their own defense, which was costly. The colonists felt that, with the exception of trade tariffs, the British had no right to tax those who were not represented in Parliament.

So part of the reason Parliament passed incendiary legislation, taxing, for example, stamps and tea, was so that the members of parliament, the landowners, could pay less tax. This was short-sighted — an incentive that could never be realized. As Tuchman describes, some more thoughtful dissenters pointed out that the cost of collecting the taxes from the hostile colonists was more than what the taxes would bring in.

Tendency to distort due to disliking/hating

We have written before that “Our inability to examine the situation from all sides and shake our beliefs, together with self-justifying behavior, can lead us to conclude that others are the problem. Such asymmetric views, amplified by strong perceived differences, often fuel hate.”

One of the things that Tuchman points out a few times is the complete ignorance of the British when it came to the sensibilities and interests of the Americans. And we can’t blame this on the distance or comparative slow speed of communication. Tuchman highlights what is most startling is those in positions of power in the Parliament literally had no desire to understand the colonists’ position. “That the British were invincibly uninformed – and stayed uninformed – about the people they insisted on ruling was a major problem of the imperial-colonial relationship.”

Parliament did not seek the advice or opinion of those Brits who had spent time in the colonies as Administrators, nor did it interview the well-educated and thoughtful Americans who were in London, such as Benjamin Franklin.

Due to their own sense of superiority, the British nobility believing they were the pinnacle of humanity, allowed their dislike of the colonists to distort the policies they pursued. (Remember history doesn't repeat but it rhymes.) As Tuchman writes, “Attitude was again the obstacle; the English could not visualize Americans in terms of equality.”

You certainly don’t declare war on people you admire and respect.

Denial Tendency

To stubbornly pursue a course of action in the face of evidence that it will eventually blow up in your face is denial. We all do it, but to do it as a political group can lose you a war.

The American revolution did not start without warning. There were years of attempts by the British to assert control over the colonies. As Tuchman describes, they would institute taxes then rescind them, only to reinstate them later. The colonists had the same response every time. They rejected the ability of the British to tax them. It was total denial that kept the British trying.

The British passed a series of acts, called the Coercive Acts that seemed designed to piss off the Americans. But in reality, it was more about the total inability of the British to see the situation clearly. Tuchman says, “if Britain had really been pursuing a plan to goad the colonies to insurrection in order to subjugate them, then her conduct of policy becomes rational. Unhappily for reason, that version cannot be reconciled to the repeals, the backings and fillings, the haphazard or individual decisions.”

As we mentioned earlier, the cost of bringing in the tax was more than the tax itself. And if taxation was the issue that was driving the colonies to war, then why keep doing it? Denial is likely part of the answer.

Social Proof

“When we feel uncertain, we all tend to look to others for answers as to how we should behave, what we should think and what we should do.”

This is social proof.

The House of Commons was not a homogenized unit; there were dissenters to the British approach in the American colonies, though these voices were always in the minority. Some people argued against the taxes and the war, offering alternatives to Parliament to act in the interest of keeping the colonies part of the empire. But the majority followed their peers.

Added to this was the fact that, as Tuchman describes, the situation in America wasn’t a hot issue for most British. The nobility of the House of Commons was frequently more occupied with the various social scandals that occurred in their ranks.

What this helped to create was a situation of largely uninformed people responsible for voting on legislation that could have significant impacts. It is a human tendency to look to the majority for guidance on behavior when we are unsure about what to do. It is always easier to go with the majority than to oppose it. In the House of Commons, it was easier to vote with the majority than to take a stand against it, particularly if one wasn’t all that interested in the issue.

First-Conclusion Bias

We tend to stick with the first conclusion we reach. Because of our commitment to our own narrative, it becomes very hard for us to change our minds once we form a definite opinion. This involves us admitting we made a mistake — something we avoid, as it can challenge our very sense of self.

The core issue that started the conflict between Britain and the American colonies, which eventually led to the war, was, as Tuchman describes, the absolute conviction of the British that they had a right to directly tax the colonies, and the equal conviction of the American that no right existed.

At the beginning, the Americans did attempt some compromise. The British, however, never did.

Despite the dissent, the cost, and the effects, the British never reexamined their first conclusion. It became layered with other issues but remained at the core of their position. Tuchman demonstrates that “they persisted in first pursuing, then fighting for an aim whose result would be harmful whether they won or lost.”

Their first conclusion, the right of the British state to tax the American colonies, was never abandoned or modified in light of what enforcing it would actually result in. Even if it were true, the absolute nature of their position prevented them from finding a compromise. This bias was a contributing factor in the result the British finally had to accept. The loss of the war.

Commitment and Consistency Bias

Partnered with the first conclusion bias, this one essentially reinforces the pain. This is what causes us to “stick with our original decision, even in the face of new information.”

Although consistency is generally perceived to be good, uncompromising consistency is more synonymous with ignorance and fear. If torpedos are aimed at your boat, your crew might appreciate you turning it around, giving yourself time to regroup.

The British made attempts to solve their problems, but these were halfhearted at best. Tuchman actually depicts the British policy as not being consistent at all. The levied taxes, then they repealed them. They eventually sent a peace delegation but gave it no power to actually come to a compromise.

But they were fully committed to their overall attitude, which was, as Tuchman writes, “a sense of superiority so dense as to be impenetrable. A feeling of this kind leads to ignorance of the world and of others because it suppresses curiosity. [All] ministries went through a full decade of mounting conflict with the colonies without any of them sending a representative, much less a minister, across the Atlantic to make acquaintance, to discuss, to find out what was spoiling, even endangering, the relationship and how it might be better managed. They were not interested in Americans because they considered them rabble or at best children whom it was inconceivable to treat – or even fight – as equals.”

Given that this attitude of superiority was so entrenched, is it any wonder that the decisions made were those that reinforced this image?

Tendency to Want to Do Something

Busyness signals productivity. The faster you are walking the more important you are. Having time on your hands means you aren’t doing enough, not seizing the day, not contributing anything of value. Slow walkers are assumed to be seniors, students, or those who have nothing going on.

We can see the same trends in governments. Strong governments defend their position at all costs, while those who value negotiating or finding common ground are perceived as weaker. Powerful governments go to war. Those with less power find a compromise.

Tuchman claims, “Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely to examine it, understand it, define it.”

So many times during the decade of conflict between the British and the Americans, the British might have put themselves in a better position if they had been willing to pause, regroup, or even walk away. Given some space, they might have compensated for the load of biases they were operating under and better defined and focused on a win-win solution.

But all the misjudgments flying around, combined with the innate human tendency to do something, led to chasing bad decisions with even worse ones.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that we can learn from our mistakes so as to not be perpetual victims of our misjudgment tendencies.

Tuchman concludes that the British did learn from their experiences during the American Revolution.

“Fifty years later, after a period of troubled relations with Canada, Commonwealth status began to emerge from the Durham Report, which resulted from England’s recognition that any other course would lead to a repetition of the American rebellion.”

People Don’t Follow Titles: Necessity and Sufficiency in Leadership

“Colonel Graff: You have a habit of upsetting your commander.
Ender Wiggin: I find it hard to respect someone just because they outrank me, sir.”
— Orson Scott Card


Many leaders confuse necessary conditions for leadership with sufficient ones.

Titles often come with the assumption people will follow you based on a title. Whether by election, appointment, or divine right, at some point you were officially put in the position. But leadership is based on more than just titles.

Not only do title-based leaders feel like once they get the title that everyone will fall in line, but they also feel they are leading because they are in charge — a violation of the golden rules of leadership. This makes them toxic to organization culture.

A necessary condition for leadership is trust, which doesn't come from titles. You have to earn it.


Necessary conditions are those that must be present, but are not, on their own, enough for achievement. This is an exceptional mental model that will help you achieve outcomes.

Perhaps an easy example will help illuminate. Swinging at a pitch in baseball is necessary to hit the ball, but not sufficient to do so.

War offers another example. It's necessary to know the capabilities of your enemy and their positions, but that is not sufficient to win a battle.

Leadership can be very similar. Being in a position of leadership is necessary to lead an organization, but that is not sufficient to get people moving towards a common goal. Titles, on their own, do not confer legitimacy. And legitimacy is one of the sufficient conditions of leadership.

If your team, organization, or country doesn't view you as legitimate you will have a hard time getting anything done. Because they won’t work for you, and you can’t do it all yourself. Leadership without legitimacy is a case of multiply by zero.

There is a wonderful example of this, from the interesting history of the Mongolians. In his book The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Jack Weatherford tells an amazing story of the unlikely, but immensely successful, leadership of Manduhai the Wise.

250 years after Genghis Khan, the empire was in fragments. The Mongols had retreated into their various tribes, often fighting each other and nominally ruled by outsiders from China and the Middle East. There was still a Khan, but he exercised no real power. The Mongol tribes were very much at the mercy of their neighbors.

In 1470 the sitting Khan died, survived only by a junior wife. There were immediate suitors vying for her affection because by marrying her the title of Khan could be claimed. Her name was Manduhai. Instead of choosing the easy path of remarriage and an alliance, she decided to pursue her dream of uniting the Mongol nation.

First, she had to choose a consort that would allow her to keep the title of Queen. There was one remaining legitimate survivor of Genghis Khan’s bloodline – a sickly 7-year-old boy. Orphaned as a baby and neglected by his first caregiver, he had been under Manduhai’s protection for a few years. Because of his lineage, she took him to the Shrine of the First Queen and asked for divine blessings in installing him as the Great Khan. They would rule together, but clearly, due to his age and condition, she would be in charge.

Although her words would be addressed to the shrine, and she would face away from the crowd, there could be no question that, in addition to being the spiritual outcry of a pilgrim, these words constituted a desperate plea of a queen to her people. This would be the most important political speech of her life.

She was successful in securing the appointment. But Manduhai understood that the title of Great Khan for the little boy and Khatun (Queen) for her would not be enough. She needed the support of all the Mongol tribes to give the titles legitimacy, and here there were a significant number of obstacles to overcome.

Twice before in the previous generations, boys of his age had been proclaimed Great Khan, only to be murdered by their rivals before they could reach full maturity. Other fully grown men who bore the title were also ignominiously struck down and killed by the Muslim warlords who tried to control them.

First Manduhai had to keep herself and the boy, Dayan Khan, alive. Then she had to demonstrate that they were the right people to unite the Mongol tribes and ensure prosperity for all. This would take both physical battles and a strategic understanding of how to employ little power for great effect. Her success was by no means guaranteed.

Throughout their reign, as on this awkward inaugural day, they frequently benefited from the underestimation of their abilities by those who struggled against them. In the world where physical strength and mastery of the horse and bow seemed to be all that really mattered, no one seemed to anticipate the advantages of patient intelligence, careful planning, and consistency of action.

It was these traits that led Manduhai to carefully craft her plan of action. She needed to position herself as a true leader that could unite the Mongol tribes.

Vows, prayers, and rituals before a shrine added much needed scared legitimacy to Dayan Khan’s rule, but without force of arms, they amounted to empty gestures and wasted breath. Only after demonstrating that she had the skill to win, as well as the supernatural blessing to do so, could Manduhai hope to rule the Mongols. She had enemies on every side, and she needed to choose her first battle carefully. She had to confront each enemy, but she had to confront each in its own due time. Manduhai needed to manage the flow of conflicts by deciding when and where to fight and not allowing others to force her into a war for which she was not prepared or stood little chance of winning.

She made an important strategic alliance with one of the failed suitors, a popular and intelligent general who controlled the area immediately east of her power base. Then she went to battle to secure her western front. Some tribes supported her from the outset, due to the spiritual power of her partnership with the boy, the ‘true Khan’. The rest she conquered, support snowballing behind her.

In addition to its strategic importance, the western campaign against the Oirat was a notable propaganda victory, demonstrating that Manduhai had the blessing of the Shrine of the First Queen and the Eternal Blue Sky. Manduhai showed that she was in control of her country.

Grinding it out in the trenches inspired support. Manduhai demonstrated the courage and intelligence to lead and to provide what her people needed. She was not an empire builder, seeking to conquer the world. Rather, she was pragmatic desiring to unify the Mongol nation to ensure they had the means to thwart any future attempt at takeover by a foreign power.

In contrast to the expansive territorial acquisition favored by prior generations of steppe conquerors, Manduhai pursued a strategy of geographic precision. Better to control the right spot rather than be responsible for conquering, organizing, and running a massive empire of reluctant subjects. … Rather than trying to conquer and occupy the extensive links of the Silk Route or the vast expanse of China, she sought to conquer just the strategic spot from which to control them.

Her story teaches us the difference between necessity and sufficiency when it comes to leadership.

Manduhai ticked all the necessary boxes, being a Queen, choosing a descendant of Genghis Khan to rule by her side, and asking for meaningful spiritual blessings. While necessary these were not sufficient to rule. To actually be accepted as a leader, she had to prove herself both on the battlefield and in strategic negotiations. She understood that people would only follow her if they believed in her, and saw that she was working for them. And finally, she also considered how to use her leadership to create something that would continue long after she had gone.

Manduhai concentrated the remainder of her life in protecting what she had accomplished and making certain that the nation could sustain itself after her departure. With the same assiduous devotion she had applied to the battlefield and the unification of the Mongol nation, Manduhai and Dayan Khan now set to the reorganization of the Mongol government and its protection in the future.

In this, she succeeded. She cemented her power as Queen by ultimately working for the peace and prosperity of the entire Mongol nation. Perhaps this is why she is remembered by them as Mandukhai the Wise.

Rory Sutherland on The Psychology of Advertising, Complex Evolved Systems, Reading, Decision Making

“There is a huge danger in looking at life as an optimization problem.”


Rory Sutherland (@rorysutherland) is the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Group, which is one of the largest advertising companies in the world.

Rory started the behavioral insights team and spends his days applying behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology to solve problems that conventionally advertising agencies haven't been able to solve.

In this wide-ranging interview we talk about: how advertising agencies are solving airport security problems, what Silicon Valley misses, how to mess with self-driving cars, reading habits, decision making, the intersection of advertising and psychology, and so much more.

This interview was recorded live in London, England.

Enjoy this amazing conversation.

“The problem with economics is not only that it is wrong but that it's incredibly creatively limiting.”


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