Per My Last E-mail #22

Baader-Meinhof, Stanford Prison, China, Tyler Perry, and Memos

Hi Friends 👋,

Happy Monday! It’s start-of-NBA-Season-week! And this season is a special one - Brett Brown’s optimism will pay off and the Sixers will win their first NBA Championship since 1983. On to the non-sports…

Baader-Meinhof’ed: Happiness, Education, and Friendship

Image result for baader-meinhof phenomenon

The fall of 1977 in Germany was known as “German Autumn.” That fall, the Baader-Meinhof Group, a West-German far-left militant organization, went on a spree of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies, and police shootouts that led to 34 deaths and earned the gang classification as a terrorist organization.

Until recently, I’d never heard of the Baader-Meinhof Group. And until one random day in 1994, neither had a man living outside of St. Paul, Minnesota. Then, one day, he heard about them for the first time. And within less than 24 hours, in a totally different context, he heard about them for a second time.

He took to the comment section of the St. Paul Pioneer Press to coin the term “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon” for that thing that happens when you learn about something and then start seeing that thing everywhere. It’s what Stanford linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky calls the “frequency illusion”. And it’s what’s probably actually happening when you think that Instagram listened to you before creepily serving you an ad for something you were just talking about!

The phenomenon is caused by two psychological processes. Selective attention causes you to subconsciously start looking for something once you know about it, and confirmation bias reinforces your belief that each new sighting of that thing is proof that it’s everywhere.


I tell you all of this because a) I think it’s fascinating, and b) I’m being Baader-Meinhof’ed by happiness, education, and friendship. Since I started pulling the thread on these topics a couple of months ago, my selective attention has found happiness, friendship, and education everywhere I look.

To wit, in Part 1 of the Finding Our Place Series, I spent 1,316 words explaining that our smartphone addiction is making us unhappy. Then this week, I stumbled on this 2016 music video for “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” by philosopher-DJ, Moby, and the illustrator-animator, Steve Cutts. Without having gone deep on technology’s impact on our happiness, I would have likely thought, “Weird song, creepy animation,” and moved on. Instead, because of Baader-Meinhof, I thought, “Woah. YES!”

(This video led me down a rabbit hole of Steve Cutts’ animations. They’re really creepy and really good. You can check them out here.)

I also just discovered The Happiness Lab podcast for the first time, although it’s been around since July. Dr. Laurie Santos’ episodes on Caring What You’re Sharing and Mistakenly Seeking Solitude were full of nuggets that triggered my confirmation bias.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is also hitting me hard on the future of education. I see it everywhere.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that business school applications are down 9.1% over the past year. According to the Journal, “a hot domestic job market has cooled the interest of many Americans in the traditional two-year M.B.A. path. Millennials, many of whom are saddled with debt loads from their undergraduate degrees, have proved more reluctant than previous generations to pursue the pricey degree.”

Just because business school applications are down doesn’t mean that people no longer want to learn and build their networks outside of the workplace. Companies like Jolt in London and even Harvard, through its Harvard Business School Online program, are offering new, more flexible, lower cost options.

Later in the week, I stumbled upon a piece that Byrne Hobart wrote about another relatively new education alternative. He argues that the college education is a bundle that has gotten too bloated, and that Ivy League schools are essentially focused on appraisal (of students when they’re 18) and signaling (to future employers). So what would the Ivy League look like if it were stripped down and rebuilt as a signaling-focused product? Y Combinator.

Its 12-week startup program provides appraisal, networking, job-specific projects, financing, and introductions to even more financing. Importantly, although it focuses on tech companies, the interactions happen IRL. [Nodding head vigorously in agreement.]

In addition to noticing things myself, I’ve noticed something else happening that puts selective attention and confirmation bias on steroids. It’s a social Baader-Meinhoff. Let’s call it the Group Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon. Once you see something, and then start seeing it everywhere, and then talk about it or write about it, people who you talk to or who read what you write start to see that thing everywhere, and then they send you things they see, which means that you see that thing in even more places. That WSJ article on business school? My friend Kirk sent it to me after reading The World in Equilibrium. And the Happiness Labs podcast was shared by another loyal reader (hi mom!).

This has been happening a lot with regards to friendship. Before last week’s e-mail, Dror sent me the study that found that the average American hasn’t made a new friend in five years after we spoke about IRL Community in-person. It was the most clicked link in last week’s e-mail. Then last week, my dad sent me this Atlantic article: Why You Don’t See Your Friends Anymore. (I’m nervous to see what ads I get targeted with after reading all these articles about not having friends.) The takeaway from this one?

Staggered and marathon work hours arguably make the nation materially richer—economists debate the point—but they certainly deprive us of what the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described as a “cultural asset of importance”: an “atmosphere of entire community repose.”

Here’s where the confirmation bias comes in. When I see the Moby video, or read quotes like the one above, or when people send me things that they’ve found that relate to the things I’m interested, I think, “Wow, I’m really on to something here.” Even though I know about the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, it feels good to think that I’m right about something.

I haven’t figured this one out yet, how to balance the knowledge of the phenomenon with the idea that you may just be right. Sometimes, something is actually part of the zeitgeist and it’s not just your brain playing tricks on you. I do think that this is one of the reasons that so many companies launch with an idea that they think is brilliant, only to find that customers don’t care or are not willing to pay for what they’ve built. Part of the answer lies in actively trying to debunk your own ideas, and in asking people to call out your blind spots.

So an ask: if you think that I’m off-base on the things that I’m writing about, call me out! And of course, keep on sharing.


Links & Listens

🎧 Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment on the Rationally Speaking Podcast with Julia Galef and Thibault le Texier

🙅🏻‍♂️ Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment by Thibault le Texier

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Speaking of wanting your ideas to be right so badly that you’re willing to completely fudge the design and results of your study…

In Per My Last E-mail #13, I linked to the le Texier paper above, but didn’t provide any commentary. Then I came across the Rationally Speaking podcast episode on which Galef interviewed le Texier about his findings, and was blown away. Essentially, this famous study from the 70’s, in which Stanford students were supposedly randomly assigned the role of prisoner or prison guard and supposedly responded by behaving like animals, was bullshit.

According to le Texier, the study’s author, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, made a bunch of experimental no-no’s. He was involved in the study himself, told the participants the outcome he wanted to get, and enforced rules that would help him get that result. He did this because he wanted to encourage prison reform more than he wanted to discover some truth about human behavior.

Interestingly, even though le Texier has shown that the results are at least questionable, psychology professors continue to teach the Stanford Prison Experiment. They, too, have their own goals: they want to show students that psychology is interesting and important, and this study is jarring enough to make that point. They might even be able to rationalize away the evidence against the study because they want it to be true.

Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.

🇨🇳 China Thread by Cyan Banister (click tweet below to see full thread)

At the risk of offending LeBron James, let’s talk about China. Banister’s thread highlights that China is playing the long game, and playing it with a different set of rules than we play by in the US. As an example, Banister points out that you can get autonomous vehicles on the road much more quickly if you’re OK trading off a few casualties short-term for millions of lives saved long-term. China is OK with this trade-off; the US is not.

This is nothing new. China has been playing the long game for years. But this conversation has gained a new level of prominence in the past few weeks because they messed with things less esoteric than tariffs or cybersecurity. They messed with our sports and with our video games. The Daryl Morey Incident and the Blizzard’s banning players for pro-Hong Kong speech have opened the country’s eyes to the Chinese threat in a way that even a trade war couldn’t.

For a nuanced look at what we’re facing, Ben Thompson’s The China Clashis required reading on the subject.

🍿 How Tyler Perry Built a Customer-Centric Empire by Dan Runcie in Trapital

Tyler Perry is a director/producer/actor best-known for the Madea franchise. He’s worth an estimated $600 million. But his success didn’t come easily.

He started out writing and acting in Madea plays in the south. On his first attempt, which he financed with his entire $12,000 life savings, he expected 1,200 people to show up. 30 did.

But Perry kept working and found success when he focused on getting the word out through the southern black church circuit and writing plays that would speak to them. As more people turned up, he collected their e-mail addresses, building a direct relationship and distribution channel. Even while his popularity grew and he started producing movies, critics panned his work. He didn’t care. He knew who he was creating for, and kept his focus on his audience.

After reading this Trapital article, I think that Perry should be up there with Southwest, Netflix, and the rest in the pantheon of strategy case studies. Throughout his career, he has been willing to make the trade-offs required in every aspect of his work and business to build a successful and sustaining empire. Highly recommend this read.

📝 Memos by Sriram Krishnan

Any list that includes Sam Hinkie’s resignation letter is a good list in my book, and this one put together by Twitter PM Sriram Krishnan, is a really good list. It includes classic internal memos like Sequoia’s YouTube investment memo, Nokia’s Burning Platforms, and Neil McElroy’s memo on creating dedicated brand teams at P&G, among some others that I’d never heard of.

Debate Club

The second Debate looks like it’s going to be bigger and better than the first! We have some new faces and returning, newly-experienced ones, doubling the number of participants and number of rounds. It’s starting to look like a real tournament 👀

If you’ve signed up - thank you! I’ll e-mail you separately with details in the next couple of days. If you haven’t, it’s not too late! Sign up here.


What’s Next

On Wednesday, I get to go back to my favorite city in the south, Durham, NC, to check out Union Social Club in person and eat at the best Indian restaurant in the USA.

Know anyone who is interested in IRL community-building, education, debate, or anything else that I’m writing about?

I always appreciate you sharing Per My Last E-mail with friends. They can subscribe here, or reach out to me @packym on twitter or at packymcc@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

Packy