Cargo Cult: Why Do We Imitate Others and What To Do About It?

Have you ever had something that you did something without fully understanding your motivation? Repeated gestures and facial expressions of the interlocutor? Unexpectedly ordered the same dish as your companion?In general, cargo cults have existed for as long as humanity. In the narrow sense of the word, the cargo cult is a religious movement, the followers of which believe that rituals will force more developed civilizations to deliver them “benefits.”

Now the term has a broader concept. It describes the phenomenon when a person imitates the behavior of another in order to achieve the same results, but at the same time he does not understand at all how it works. And it usually fails.Imitation is deeply at the root of human nature — for us it is a way of knowing the world and learning, one of the skills that helped us survive and create a modern civilization.

We simply cannot help but create various cults for ourselves — this is our nature. And when it comes to business, things get even more complicated. Everything is aggravated by the fact that usually successful companies independently spread information about their achievements — press releases, interviews with top managers. And many founders of failed projects try to keep silent about the story or … just disappear.There are many different categorizations of cargo cults. The problem was best described by Professor Phil Rosenzweig in The Halo Effect over ten years ago. In total, he identified nine types of biases, four of which, in my opinion, are the most relevant to business:

The Halo Effect. Cognitive distortion, when a general idea of ​​a person or phenomenon affects its particular features. This is what we talked about earlier – an outwardly attractive person seems to us more reliable, although we may not even know him personally.

The Delusion of Correlation and Causality. We often take by mistake any correlation for causation. The company released the product in the third quarter and reported a twofold increase in profit in the fourth quarter. It is tempting to explain everything due to its novelty, but the reality is usually a little more complicated.

The Delusion of Single Explanations. We see new research that proves that happy hours on Fridays improve the corporate culture and, as a result, employee performance. But overall performance is influenced not only by teambuilding, but by many other factors that are also correlated with each other. Therefore, it is difficult to single out the effect of one specific action — and it is probably not worth focusing on this.

The Delusion of Connecting the Winning Dots. We have all heard about the survivor’s mistake – trying to understand the phenomenon, having data on only one group (survivors). But we continue to read articles about “successful startups”, ignoring stories of failures.Working tools from the side can and should be taken, but it should be done carefully:

Formulate the problem. You need to clearly understand your motivation. The five “why” approach helps here: define the problem, and ask yourself “why?” five times in a row is a great source of insight.

Look for role models with similar goals. Equipping an office with table football, holding corporate events every first Friday of the month, or giving out free gym membership have not yet made any company great. If you see someone have nice perks, it is not a fact that you need them. People follow their goals, and in the process of achieving them they run into obstacles. To cope with them, sometimes you need tools such as team building, ice cream, massage and yoga classes. But it is not that straightforward. It is much more effective to look at companies with similar goals and values ​​and learn from their experience of achieving those goals, rather than just copy the signs of success.

Learn from other people’s mistakes correctly. It is not enough just to read about a person’s failure in order not to commit your own. Gather the facts you know about someone else’s failure and try to put yourself in the shoes of that person or company. Why did they do this? What would you do?

It is difficult to counteract cargo cults — if everyone around succeeds, why can’t I do it? But personal experience is more valuable than dozens of other people’s opinions. And the next time you go to use the tips from the new self-help book, ask yourself: “Do I really need this?”