Humans do a lot of things that really drive me nuts – like just totally copying the behaviors of people whom they admire, regardless of whether or not they make any sense.

At The Granite Games a few weeks ago, for example, there was an athlete who was almost a carbon copy of Dani Speegle. It kind of creeped me out, especially when they were talking within a few yards of each other as athletes moved in and out of the warm-up area.

I was like, “What are you thinking? Do you feel shame when you are within a few feet of the person that you’re copying? Or joy? What’s up with this”

Within fitness, athletes will often copy all aspects of an athlete’s training who they admire – and plenty of elite athletes make decent money by simply posting their own programming online behind a paywall. However, the training of the elite rarely makes sense for the weekend warrior with a full-time, stressful job and a history of back injuries.

This rampant, filterless copying extends from a person of prestige to just about anything they touch – regardless of whether or not it’s related to their field of expertise – which is why athletes are great for endorsing not just shoes, but cars, watches, and, of course, underwear.

This copying is present in the entrepreneurial space as well, and was the impetus for my recent podcast on survivorship bias which I recorded when I just couldn’t take another person claiming that the secret to their success is their morning journaling routine.

I recently read a book called “The Secret of Our Success” by Joseph Henrich after reading an article on the Scholar’s Stage blog.

The book focuses on the process of cultural evolution that has shaped human behavior.

One of the most salient points has to do with the emergence of complicated processes in hunter gatherer tribes for detoxification of edible plants, choosing where to hung in order to maximize the likelihood of encountering prey, and prevention of toxicity in pregnant women.

Individuals in the cultures that have these processes and rituals cannot explain the reasoning for them in a sense that we would consider “scientific,” but many of these superstitions, while seemingly arbitrary, do actually impact outcomes.

For example, if any of the stages of cassava preparation are skipped in preparation of the “bitter” version of the root, people who eat it will slowly develop cyanide poisoning over years.

Based upon this, it is beneficial for humans to copy their traditions from elders and more prestigious members of their society rather than tinkering with them on their own.

While an individual may think that a ritual “doesn’t make sense” or is “inefficient,” they take significant risk by breaking from that tradition since it likely came from a complicated, emergent process of tinkering and iteration.

In various game theoretical models, it is actually more beneficial on average for people to simply copy the strategies of the most successful individuals rather than attempting to understand or modify what they are doing.

I have much more empathy for the tendency of people to blindly copy “success” without really understanding what’s going on than I used to.

I also better understand the phenomenon of people being “famous for being famous” – or, as is more common in a lot of industries, famous for some stroke of luck or insight and then unreasonably elevated to expert status despite the relatively low quality of their actual knowledge or recommendations.

Once you hit a tipping point where enough people are paying attention to you, you’ve reached an entrenched status as an “expert” even if you’re incompetent.

And, from a big picture perspective, most people are probably better served by blindly copying successful people rather than trying to become experts themselves and understand all the intricacies of what advice matters and what doesn’t.

There are also theoretically market forces at play that can lend further weight to advice offered by prestigious individuals.

If people are more successful following a given “influencer’s” advice, that influencer will potentially gain more traction – whereas people offering unhelpful advice will largely lose their influence over time.

However, I don’t see this play out in real life most of the time. It seems that appealing to people’s built-in faulty cognitive strategies of conspiracy theory and magical thinking is much more effective for creating influence than actually offering helpful information.

We can probably split the market into people who actually want to take action on things like starting a fitness program, becoming a better athlete, or growing their business – and those who want to pretend that they might someday like to do one of those things.

The influencer market for the latter is much larger, and that market is much more susceptible to fuzzy thinking and bad advice.

So, for a lot of prestigious individuals, their platform is based upon some initial success through combination of luck and skill (although even many skilled and knowledgeable people are unable to articulate what they are actually doing in their field), then maintaining their position of status through aspirational people continuing to pay attention to them. Many of those people are not actually serious about changing their lives through fitness or entrepreneurship, so they pay more attention to lame hacks and advice that panders to magical thinking – and can even judge people harshly for explaining the actual nitty gritty details of their real fitness routine, their real nutrition program or the actual trade-offs they have to make to operate a successful business. 

And that’s why we got a bunch of moronic memes about morning journaling.