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Cargo Cults: How to Fail Your Way to Success

Isaac Newton famously attributed his success to having stood “on the shoulders of giants.” The father of physics knew he was building on the work and accomplishments of those who came before him. Great thinkers and doers who unknowingly laid the groundwork for Newton’s discoveries. But there’s a difference between leveraging our predecessors’ knowledge and mere imitation. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the phenomenon of Cargo Cults, a stubborn devotion to the idea that imitation alone will lead to results.

The origins of Cargo Cults can be traced back to indigenous tribes in the pacific. Their significance, however, extends far into modern science and our everyday lives.

The Origin of Cargo Cults

A Cargo Cult is an erroneous system of belief whose worshippers trust that valuable goods can be obtained through mimicry. In its most notable form, Cargo Cults originated in Melanesia in the South Pacific during World War II. First, the Japanese and then the American military populated the islands such as today’s Vanuatu. They set up military bases, built airstrips and flew in tons of equipment, goods and supplies to keep the war machine going.

Cargo Cult Plane

The indigenous population observed the Americans closely. Sure enough, they also benefited from the goods the technologically more advanced society was dropping on their island. A religious devotion developed around the cargo the Americans received out of the sky. A cult that went as far as being embodied by “John Frum” or “Tom Navy”, mythical American servicemen with generic names who were believed to bring prosperity to the island.

When the war was over, the Americans left, and the cargo stopped coming. So the locals thought of ways to bring it back. Not knowing where the supplies came from and how they got there, the tribespeople imitated the behaviour of the soldiers. They built runways, control towers and planes. They carved headphones out of wood and marched up and down. They mimicked the behaviour they observed as well as they could. One day, they believed, the goods would return. But as you’d expect, their efforts failed to produce the desired results. The planes did not land again.

Cargo Cult Science

It’s easy to shake our heads in disbelief at the cargo cultists of Vanuatu. But without knowledge of aerodynamics, engineering and physics. Without a grasp on airports, supply chains and logistics. How were they supposed to know that this would never work? For the Melanesians, it was indistinguishable from witchcraft. For us, it’s basic science. Albeit…according to the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, we shouldn’t be too sure of ourselves.

Richard Feynman

As Feynman pointed out in his 1974 commencement address at Caltech, the scientific method emerged centuries ago as a method to eliminate those ideas that didn’t work. But despite our progress, mysticism and pseudoscience persisted as modern research was far from immune to fooling itself the way the cargo cultists did. Feynman’s prime example was the teaching of literacy and numeracy. In defiance of all the schools and scholarship on how to teach reading and math, scores were still going down, he noted. To the very least, this deserved a closer look at why we even think our efforts should work. The Nobel laureate concluded:

I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

None of the Melanesian’s mimicry bore any fruit. Still, they kept worshipping their Cargo Cult. In the same way, cargo cult scientists are making no headway. Nevertheless, they continue to promote theories that produce no results in the real world. The consequences of this practice are more severe than we might think.

Collective Delusions

According to Feynman, Cargo Cult Science, such as in education, becomes a problem when teachers are forced to use pseudoscientific methods over the ones they’ve found to be effective in practice. On a larger scale, we might say Cargo Cult Science becomes a problem when it’s picked up by decision-makers to justify their policies. When it has become painfully obvious that the desired results don’t materialise. But the failed policies persist.

In such cases, we’re entering the realm of collective delusions, to which modern societies are no strangers. As French economist Roland Bénabou explains in a paper about collective delusions in organisations and markets:

In the aftermath of corporate and public-sector disasters, it often emerges that participants fell prey to a collective form of wilful blindness and overconfidence: mounting warning signals were systematically cast aside or met with denial, evidence avoided or selectively reinterpreted, dissenters shunned.

This kind of wishful thinking has all the hallmarks of a Cargo Cult. Humans don’t seem keen on abandoning a beloved cause, and neither are we naturally good at knowing when to quit. More often than not, coming up with clever ways to fool ourselves seems like the better strategy. Particularly when we’re part of a group. As I’ve outlined in my post about the Dead Horse Theory meme, it’s hard for the sane individual to break through the nonsense. Especially given that we’re often busy worshipping our own everyday Cargo Cults.

Everyday Cargo Cults

As the rational and independently-minded people that we are, it’s easy to shake our heads at the collective delusions of our age. The truth is they all depend on individuals engaging in some form of motivated misperception, which occurs when “people maintain a preferred narrative even in the face of conflicting information.” The reasons could be manifold. Perhaps the truth feels too overwhelming. Or our ego won’t allow us to question it. If we’re being totally honest, we all worship our own little Cargo Cults.

Imitating the Successful

Take blogging, for example. We can all go through the motions of putting our writing online. But without going into the details of how to become a better writer, without a firm grasp on how that sweet traffic comes about, chances are we won’t get the results we were hoping for. The same goes for watching UFC. It doesn’t turn us into MMA fighters. Neither does copying a fighter’s every move or putting on sweatpants and a mouthguard every time we leave the house. That’s silly, and I know that now. Nobody in MMA wears sweatpants.

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What makes this approach so irresistible is that it’s not wrong in principle. Imitate-the-Successful is a social heuristic we use all the time to solve complex problems fast and intuitively. It’s natural to emulate what the best of our peers do, expecting similar results. But when it comes to high-status role models, over-imitation can become a crutch. Writer Rob Henderson gives the example of people copying the morning routines of billionaires to help their own wealth along.

It’s wise to exercise caution before imitating the personal habits of prestigious people. Drinking the same green breakfast smoothie as your favorite entrepreneur or podcaster probably isn’t going to do much for your own success, but the human impulse to over-imitate still wonders.

Founding Your Own Cargo Cult

Imitating the successful is a great way to get us started when we’re so unconsciously incompetent that we don’t even know what we don’t know. We can use the heuristic selectively by emulating useful micro habits, too. However, when this mental shortcut is applied too broadly and as a long-term strategy, the foundation of a new personal Cargo Cult is almost guaranteed. If that reminds you of the infamous Dunning-Kruger Effect, you’re not wrong.

The less we know, the more confident we seem to be about our abilities. Being a professional goalkeeper? Just catching balls. Managing a company? No more than telling people what to do and shouting a lot. Teaching? Reading a PowerPoint aloud. It’s only when reality sets in that we, hopefully, abandon our religious devotion of the cargo kind. But how can we avoid Cargo Cults in the first place?

Cargo Cult Solutions

Dismissing Cargo Cults as a misguided belief of remote tribes of a bygone era sounds like a good way to fall for one. To fortify our minds against this notion, two ideas deserve a closer look: iteration and integrity.

Iteration

Playing a game of mimicry and repetition isn’t very sustainable when we want to find out how to do something or become someone. The better way is to learn through iterations. Iterations are new, improved versions of a product or skill. As investor Naval Ravikant knows, “it’s the number of iterations that drives the learning curve”, not the number of repetitions. These refinements, no matter how small, will eventually compound.

Similarly, Richard Feynman advocated in favour of an iterative learning learning-through-teaching approach known as the Feynman Technique. We start with a blank piece of paper, study a subject, and then try to teach it to someone else. The method forces us to gradually recognise and fill our knowledge gaps. This way, we don’t memorise facts blindly. Instead, we’re encouraged to learn how things work and why.

To their credit, the cargo cultists of Vanuatu were at their personal frontier between the known and the unknown. Given their possibilities, they made it pretty far. We, on the other hand, have no excuses to ignore the free education that awaits us at the click of a button. There’s no shortage of resources, tutorials, teachers and coaches to help us practice and iterate in the right direction. This brings us to the significance of integrity.

Integrity

To see if our iterations go in the right direction, it’s important to take an honest look at the results and correct course accordingly. As comforting as it might be in the short term, ignoring when the metaphorical planes do not land is counterproductive in the long run. For Annie Duke, the author of Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away, it’s a recipe for self-deception:

Every time you rationalize away new information to cling to a belief, that belief becomes more woven into the fabric of your identity. The act of rejecting the facts becomes circular. Now the next time you discover conflicting information or your actions don’t align with your beliefs, you’re going to be even more motivated to stick to those beliefs.

It won’t come as a surprise that Richard Feynman saw academic integrity and humility as the answer to Cargo Cult Science. In his commencement speech, the physicist urged scientists to put as much care into reporting what might invalidate their theories as they put into what supports them. The idea was to “give all of the information […] not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”

It’s the kind of honest thinking and self-reflection that are part of the five habits of a master thinker. If we habitually challenge our assumptions and look for alternative explanations, the chances of falling for Cargo Cults are slim. When we use related methods such as Premortem Analysis, we might even be able to anticipate them. It works like this: Imagine yourself a year in the future. Still, the planes haven’t landed, reading scores keep going down, and the UFC hasn’t called yet. What went wrong?

Closing Thoughts

In a sense, every new endeavour is a Cargo Cult in waiting. We all start out as fools. We progress by building on the knowledge and skills of the giants who came before us. We grow by iterating rather than just imitating. On our way to mastery, failure is a requirement. But as angel investor Naval Ravikant once tweeted: “Clear thinkers take feedback from reality, not society.” That’s how they fail their way to success.

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