Welcome To

What’s Our Problem?

This writing piece is remixed from Tim Urban’s new release -

A Self Help Book For Societies

Empowerse's website addresses a pressing issue in its section titled "What's Our Problem." It begins with an insightful introduction, progressing through chapters such as "Vertical Thinking," "Hypothesis Testing," and "Changing Course." Each chapter contributes to a comprehensive understanding of the issue, while the final chapter, "So What’s Our Solution?" invites visitors to explore potential remedies. The content is presented professionally yet accessibly, making complex concepts understandable for a wide audience.

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How To Fix The World

Introduction: The Big Picture

If we want to fully understand how big the problem of fixing the world is, and why it’s so important that we do, we need to first zoom out…..

IMAGINE IF ALL of human history were written down in a fat book called The Story of Us.


Humans have been around for a long, long time—according to the most recent estimates, between 200,000 and 300,000 years. If every page of The Story of Us covered 250 years of history, the book would be about 1,000 pages long. To take a closer look, let’s tear

all the pages out and lay them on the table:


When we really zoom out, we see that most of what we consider ancient history is really just the very last pages of the story. The Agricultural Revolution starts around page 950 or 960, recorded history gets going at about page 976, and Christianity isn’t born until page 993.

A.D. is over 2,000 years long, which sounds like a long time, until you realize that humans have been around for over 2,000 centuries.

There are exceptions: 7th century Europe (page 995) was, for instance, less technologically advanced than 2nd century Europe (page 993) at the height of the Roman Empire. But most of the time, technology moves in one overarching direction: forward.

Page 1,000, which goes from the early 1770s to the early 2020s, contains all of U.S. history.

We’re now collectively venturing into the mysterious new world of page 1,001. This excites me—and also scares me—because of three concurrent facts.

Fact 1: Technology is exponential

Say we went back to page 760 of The Story of Us, kidnapped someone, and transported them a few centuries forward to page 761. Other than having to find new friends and make some cultural adjustments, they’d probably get along fine, because the worlds of pages 760 and 761 were pretty much the same.


For most of our history, that’s what it would be like to jump forward 250 years to the next page. But the closer you get to page 1,000, the less the rule holds. Like, what if we did the same thing with someone on page 992, 998, or 999?


The later you lived in The Story of Us, the more mind-blowing it would be to jump forward to the next page. As you can see, our little person on page 999 was so shocked by the world he saw on page 1,000, he keeled over and died. We can see why when we compare page 1,000 to all the pages before it.


It’s natural to assume that the world we grew up in is normal. But nothing about our current world is normal. Because technology is exponential. More advanced societies make progress at a faster rate than less advanced societies—because they’re more advanced. People in the 19th century knew more and had better technology than people in the 16th century, so it’s no surprise that there were more advances on page 1,000 than on page 999. Over the centuries, this builds upon itself, leading to increasingly rapid progress. And ever since the Middle Ages ended, human technology has been advancing on an exponential fast track, leading to a world on page 1,000 that would seem like a totally different planet to humans on any previous page.

Fact 2: Better Technology Means Higher Stakes

Technology is a multiplier of both good and bad. More technology means better good times, but it also means “badder” bad times. On page 999 of human history, the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution that generated vast improvements in human prosperity also generated an explosion of slavery and brutal imperialism.

Page 1,000, a time of unprecedented life expectancy, wealth, and political freedom, also saw the two most catastrophic wars in history followed by existential threats with the invention of nuclear and biological weapons and the onset of climate change.

As the times get better, they also get more dangerous. More technology makes our species more powerful, which increases risk. And the scary thing is, if the good and bad keep exponentially growing, it doesn’t matter how great the good times become. If the bad gets to a certain level of bad, it’s all over for us.

So far in the 21st century, Fact 1 and Fact 2 seem to be holding strong. The pace of change has been dizzying, with the advent of widespread internet, social media, smart phones, self-driving cars, and crypto, not to mention the dramatic leaps in AI powering many of these advances. The jump in technology from page 1,000 to 1,001 should prove to be even more extreme than the jump from 999 to 1,000—maybe many times more so. This could be unfathomably awesome. We could conquer every problem that ails us today— disease, poverty, climate change, maybe even mortality itself.

But if the catastrophes of page 1,000 were the most devastating yet, what does that mean about catastrophes on page 1,001? The same technology that has made our world magical has also opened a large number of Pandora’s boxes: rapidly advancing AI, cyber warfare, autonomous weapons, and bioweapons, to name a few.

With the stakes this high, we’d want to be our wisest selves. Which is unfortunate, because:

Fact 3: Our society is currently acting like a poopy-pantsed four-year-old who dropped its ice cream.

I picture society as a giant human—a living organism like each of us, only much bigger. And when I look at the American society around me, I’m not really seeing this:


It looks more like this:


Humans are supposed to mature as they age—but the giant human world I live in has been getting more childish each year. Tribalism and political division are on the rise. False narratives and outlandish conspiracy theories are flourishing. Major institutions are floundering. Medieval- style public shaming is suddenly back in fashion. Trust, the critical currency of a healthy society, is disintegrating. And these trends seem to be happening in lots of societies, not just my own. So what’s our problem? Why, in a time so prosperous, with the stakes so high, would we be going backward in wisdom?

This wouldn’t be the first time. In 1905, philosopher George Santayana issued a warning to humanity:

| Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The worrying thing about that quote is that the philosopher Edmund Burke issued the same warning over a century earlier, in 1790:

| People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.

We seem to be having trouble learning an important lesson here.

When we learn a technology lesson, we tend not to forget it. The invention of the integrated circuit in 1959 was a breakthrough that launched a new paradigm in modern computing. This isn’t the kind of thing we later forget, finding ourselves accidentally going back to making computers with vacuum tubes. But wisdom lessons don’t always seem to stick. Unlike technological growth, wisdom seems to oscillate up and down, leading societies to repeat age-old mistakes.

As I look at the world around me today, I worry that we’re on our way toward making some terrible—and preventable—mistakes. When I think about Facts 1 and 2, I picture our societies as giants trudging upward on a mountain ridge toward a glorious future—but as they move upward, the ridge gets thinner and the cliffs on either side grow steeper. The higher we go, the more deadly a fall we risk. When I think about Fact 3, I see those giants losing their composure and becoming more erratic in their steps, at the worst possible time.


If you were reading The Story of Us and turned the page to 1,001, everything would seem to be coming to a head, with many storylines suddenly converging. You’d be glued to the book, needing to find out what happens to this species.

Except we’re not reading The Story of Us—we’re living inside of it, as its characters. We’re also its authors, writing the story as we go along.

Our responsibility is immense. If we can figure out how to get page 1,001 right, Future Us and trillions of our descendants could live high up on that mountain in what would seem like a magical utopia to Today Us. However, If we get page 1,001 and stumble off those steep cliffs, this might be the last page of the story.

As the authors of The Story of Us, we have no mentors, no editors, no one to make sure it all turns out okay. It’s all in our hands. This scares me, but it’s also what gives me hope. If we can all get just a little wiser, together, it may be enough to nudge the story onto a trajectory that points toward an unimaginably good future.

If you are someone who recognizes this as the potential final decade where humans matter relative to the exponential growth of machine intelligence, then you are like me. Thinking where to place one’s energy to get the greatest unlock for mankind.

You may have gone down similar thought patterns like myself, or how if things DO GO WELL, they’ll go REALLY, REALLY WELL. Like so well that those religious stories every religion has about heaven, nirvana, or eternal fulfillment may actually be on to something.

If you disregard those stories, you can still imagine that a world without disease or suffering, with as much time as you want, and enough resources as you want, IS going to be pretty awesome. With all time in the world and all the capability in the world for us to focus on each other’s happiness and well-being, it’d be silly to think we couldn’t do a good job.


Yet still, we are not there, we are here, and getting THERE is still in question. While it seems this idea of “Salvation” from all pain and suffering may really be imminent, the idea that its going to happen magically and that our actions don’t effect it, is as silly as can be.

Beyond that, when we do get there, I assume any one of us who may enjoy centuries or millennia to come would be pretty eternally fulfilled, having recognized the importance of this decade for humanity, and having taking action of spending time, resources, and attention on the things that mattered most.

For me, I am dedicating my entire self towards this mission, as I know that in each moment I give myself to the highest good possible, I make one small step for mankind, and one giant step for the story of myself as a man who is a part of it.

Prologue: Helping The Animals In Our Mind

THE ANIMAL WORLD is a stressful place to be.


The issue is that the animal world isn’t really an animal world—it’s a world of trillions of strands of genetic information, each one hell-bent on immortality. Most gene strands don’t last very long, and those still on Earth today are the miracle outliers, such incredible survival specialists that they’re hundreds of millions of years old and counting.

Animals are just a hack these outlier genes came up with— temporary containers designed to carry the genes and help them stay immortal. Genes can’t talk to their animals, so they control them by having them run on specialized survival software I call the Primitive Mind:


The Primitive Mind is a set of coded instructions for how to be a successful animal in the animal’s natural habitat. The coder is natural selection, which develops the software using a pretty simple process.

Software that’s good at making its animal pass on its genes stays around, and the less successful software is discontinued. Genetic mutation is like a bug appearing in the software from time to time, and every once in a while, a certain bug makes the software better—an accidental software update. It’s a slow way to code, but over millions of generations, it gets the job done.


The infrequency of these updates means an animal’s software is actually optimized for the environment of its ancestors. For most animals, this system works fine. Their environment changes so slowly that whatever worked a hundred thousand or even a million years in the past probably works just about as well in the present.

But humans are strange animals. A handful of cognitive superpowers, like symbolic language, abstract thinking, complex social relationships, and long-term planning, have allowed humans to take their environment into their own hands in a way no other animal can. In the blink of an eye—around 12,000 years or 500 generations, humans have crafted a totally novel environment for themselves called civilization.

As great as civilization may be, 500 generations isn’t enough time for evolution to take a shit. So now we’re all here living in this fancy new habitat, using brain software optimized to our old habitat.


You know how moths seemingly inanely fly toward light and you’re not really sure why they do this or what their angle is? It turns out that for millions of years, moths have used moonlight as a beacon for nocturnal navigation—which works great until a bunch of people start turning lights on at night that aren’t the moon. The moth’s brain software hasn’t had time to update itself to the new situation, and now millions of moths are wasting their lives flapping around streetlights.

In a lot of ways, modern humans are like modern moths, running on a well-intentioned Primitive Mind that’s constantly misinterpreting the weird world we’ve built for ourselves.


The good news is, our Primitive Mind has a roommate: the Higher Mind.


The Higher Mind is the part of you that can think outside itself and self-reflect and get wiser with experience.

Unlike the Primitive Mind, the Higher Mind can look around and see the world for what it really is. It can see that you live in an advanced civilization and it wants to think and behave accordingly. The Primitive Mind and Higher Mind are a funny pair. When things are going well, the inside of your head looks like this:


The Higher Mind is large and in charge, while its little software pet chases dopamine around, taking care of the eating and sleeping and self-gratification. The Primitive Mind, at its core, just wants to survive and reproduce and help its offspring reproduce—all things the Higher Mind is totally on board with when it makes sense. When the Primitive Mind wants you to think and behave in a way that doesn’t map onto reality, the Higher Mind tries to override the software, keeping you within the “makes sense” circle on the right:


The trouble starts when the balance of power changes.

As smart as the Higher Mind may be, it’s not very good at managing the Primitive Mind. And when the Primitive Mind gains too much control, you might find yourself drifting over to the No Sense Zone.


Like we’ve all been here, trying to buy something at a drugstore and becoming enticed by a succulent bag of junk food.


The Primitive Mind and Higher Mind help us see what’s really going on:


Like the moth flying toward a streetlight, the human Primitive Mind thinks it’s a great decision to eat Skittles. In the ancient human world, there was no such thing as processed food, calories were hard to come by, and anything with a texture and taste as delectable as a Skittle was surely a good thing to eat. Mars, Inc., which makes Skittles, knows what makes your Primitive Mind tick and is in the business of tricking it. Your Higher Mind knows better. If it holds the reins of your mind, it’ll either skip the Skittles or have just a few, as a little treat for its primitive roommate. But sometimes, there you are, 80 Skittles into your binge, hating yourself—because your Primitive Mind has hijacked the cockpit.


This kind of internal disagreement pops up in many parts of life, like a constant tug-of-war in our heads—a tug-of-war over our thoughts, our emotions, our values, our morals, our judgments, and our overall consciousness.

The tug-of-war is a spectrum that we can simplify into four basic states—or four rungs of a Ladder:


Humans are so complicated because we’re all a mixture of both “high-rung” and “low-rung” psychology.

When the Higher Mind is winning the tug-of-war, its staff illuminates our minds with clarity, including awareness of the Primitive Mind and what it’s up to. The Higher Mind understands that primitive pleasures like sex, food, and all-in-good-fun tribalism like sports fandom are enjoyable, and often necessary, parts of a human life. And like a good pet owner, the Higher Mind is more than happy to let the Primitive Mind have its fun. Primitive bliss is great, as long as it’s managed by the Higher Mind, who makes sure it’s done in moderation, it’s done for the right reasons, and no one gets hurt. In short, when we’re up on the high rungs, we act like grown-ups.

But when something riles up the Primitive Mind, it gets bigger and stronger. Its torch—which bears the primal fires of our genes’ will for survival—grows as well, filling our minds with smoky fog. This fog dulls our consciousness, so when we’re most under the spell of our Primitive Mind, we don’t even realize it’s happening. The Higher Mind, unable to think clearly, begins directing its efforts toward supporting whatever the Primitive Mind wants to do, whether it makes sense or not. When we slip down to the Ladder’s low rungs, we’re short-sighted and small-minded, thinking and acting with our pettiest emotions. We’re low on self-awareness and high on hypocrisy. We’re our worst selves.

We all have our own Ladder struggles. Some of us struggle with procrastination, an uncontrollable temper, or an addiction to sugar or gambling; others suffer from an irrational fear of failure or crippling social anxiety. We all self-defeat in our own way—in each case because our Higher Minds lose control of our heads and send us flapping our moth wings toward the streetlights.

In this book, we’re going to explore a particular group of Ladder struggles—those I believe are most relevant to our big question about today’s societies: What’s our problem? The first stop on our journey will be our own heads, where we’ll use the Ladder to help us make sense of a key process: how we form our beliefs.

Chapter 1: Vertical Thinking

Why do we believe what we believe?

Our beliefs make up our perception of reality, drive our behavior, and shape our life stories. History happened the way it did because of what people believed in the past, and what we believe today will write the story of our future. So it seems like an important question to ask:

How do we actually come to believe the things we end up believing?

To explore this question, let’s create a way to visualize it.

When it comes to our beliefs, let’s imagine the range of views on any given topic as an axis we can call the Idea Spectrum.


The Idea Spectrum is a simple tool we can use to capture the range of what a person might think about any given topic—their beliefs, their opinions, their stances.


For most beliefs, we’re so concerned with where people stand that we often forget the most important thing about what someone thinks: how they arrived at what they think. This is where the Ladder can help. If the Idea Spectrum is a “what you think” axis, we can use the Ladder as a “how you think” axis.


To understand how our thinking changes depending on where we are on the Ladder, we have to ask ourselves: how do the two minds form beliefs?

Your Higher Mind is aware that humans are often delusional, and it wants you to be not delusional. It sees beliefs as the most recent draft of a work in progress, and as it lives more and learns more, the Higher Mind is always happy to make a revision. Because when beliefs are revised, it’s a signal of progress—of becoming less ignorant, less foolish, less wrong.

Your Primitive Mind disagrees. For your genes, what’s important is holding beliefs that generate the best kinds of survival behavior whether or not those beliefs are actually true. The Primitive Mind’s beliefs are usually installed early on in life, often based on the prevailing beliefs of your family, peer group, or broader community.

The Primitive Mind sees those beliefs as a fundamental part of your identity and a key to remaining in good standing with the community around you. Given all of this, the last thing the Primitive Mind wants is for you to feel humble about your beliefs or interested in revising them. It wants you to treat your beliefs as sacred objects and believe them with conviction.


Rung 1: Thinking like a Scientist

So the Higher Mind’s goal is to get to the truth, while the Primitive Mind’s goal is confirmation of its existing beliefs. These two very different types of intellectual motivation exist simultaneously in our heads. This means that our driving intellectual motivation—and, in turn, our thinking process—varies depending on where we are on the Ladder at any given moment.

In the realm of thinking, then, the Ladder’s four rungs correspond to four ways of forming beliefs. When your Higher Mind is running the show, you’re up on the top rung, thinking like a Scientist.


When you’re thinking like a Scientist, you start at Point A and follow evidence wherever it takes you.


More specifically, the Scientist’s journey from A to B looks something like this:


The Scientist’s default position on any topic is “I don’t know.” To advance beyond Point A, they have to put in effort, starting with the first stage: hypothesis formation.


Hypothesis formation

Top-rung thinking forms hypotheses from the bottom up. Rather than adopt the beliefs and assumptions of conventional wisdom, you puzzle together your own ideas, from scratch. This is a three-part process:

1. Gather information

In order to puzzle, you need pieces. Each of us is constantly flooded with information, and we have severely limited attention to allot. In other words, your mind is an exclusive VIP-only club with a tough bouncer.

But when Scientists want to learn something new, they try to soak up a wide variety of information on the topic. The Scientist seeks out ideas across the Idea Spectrum, even those that seem likely to be wrong—because knowing the range of viewpoints that exist about the topic is a key facet of understanding the topic.

2. Evaluate information

If gathering info is about quantity, evaluating info is all about quality.

There are instances when a thinker has the time and the means to collect information and evidence directly—with their own primary observations, or by conducting their own studies. But most of the info we use to inform ourselves is indirect knowledge: knowledge accumulated by others that we import into our minds and adopt as our own. Every statistic you come across, everything you read in a textbook, everything you learn from parents or teachers, everything

you see or read in the news or on social media, every tenet of conventional wisdom—it’s all indirect knowledge.

That’s why perhaps the most important skill of a skilled thinker is knowing when to trust.

Trust, when assigned wisely, is an efficient knowledge-acquisition trick. If you can trust a person who actually speaks the truth, you can take the knowledge that person worked hard for—either through primary research or indirectly, using their own diligent trust criteria— and “photocopy” it into your own brain. This magical intellectual corner-cutting tool has allowed humanity to accumulate so much collective knowledge over the past 10,000 years that a species of primates can now understand the origins of the universe.

But trust assigned wrongly has the opposite effect. When people trust information to be true that isn’t, they end up with the illusion of knowledge—which is worse than having no knowledge at all.

So skilled thinkers work hard to master the art of skepticism. A thinker who believes everything they hear is too gullible, and their beliefs become packed with a jumble of falsehoods, misconceptions, and contradictions. Someone who trusts no one is overly cynical, even paranoid, and limited to gaining new information only by direct experience. Neither of these fosters much learning.

The Scientist’s default skepticism position would be somewhere in between, with a filter just tight enough to consistently identify and weed out bullshit, just open enough to let in the truth. As they become familiar with certain information sources—friends, media brands, articles, books—the Scientist evaluates the sources based on how accurate they’ve proven to be in the past. For sources known to be obsessed with accuracy, the Scientist loosens up the trust filter. When the Scientist catches a source putting out inaccurate or biased ideas, they tighten up the filter and take future information with a grain of salt.


When enough information puzzle pieces have been collected, the third stage of the process begins.

3. Puzzle together a hypothesis

The gathering and evaluating phases rely heavily on the learnings of others, but for the Scientist, the final puzzle is mostly a work of independent reasoning. When it’s time to form an opinion, their head becomes a wide-open creative laboratory.


Scientists, so rigid about their high-up position on the vertical How You Think axis, start out totally agnostic about their horizontal position on the What You Think axis. Early on in the puzzling process, they treat the Idea Spectrum like a skating rink, happily gliding back and forth as they explore different possible viewpoints.

As the gathering and evaluating processes continue, the Scientist grows more confident in their puzzling. Eventually, they begin to settle on a portion of the Idea Spectrum where they suspect the truth may lie. Their puzzle is finally taking shape—they have begun to form a hypothesis.


Chapter 2: Hypothesis testing


Imagine I present to you this boxer, and we have this exchange:


You’d think I was insane.

But people do this with ideas all the time. They feel sure they’re right about an opinion they’ve never had to defend—an opinion that has never stepped into the ring. Scientists know that an untested belief is only a hypothesis—a boxer with potential, but not a champion of anything. So the Scientist starts expressing the idea publicly, in person and online. It’s time to see if the little guy can box.


In the world of ideas, boxing opponents come in the form of dissent. When the Scientist starts throwing ideas out into the world, the punches pour in. Biased reasoning, oversimplification, logical fallacies, and questionable statistics are the weak spots that feisty dissenters look for, and every effective blow landed on the hypothesis helps the Scientist improve their ideas. This is why Scientists actively seek out dissent. As organizational psychologist Adam Grant puts it in his book Think Again:

I’ve noticed a paradox in great scientists and superforecasters: the reason they’re so comfortable being wrong is that they’re terrified of being wrong. What sets them apart is the time horizon. They’re determined to reach the correct answer in the long run, and they know that means they have to be open to stumbling, backtracking, and rerouting in the short run. They shun rose-colored glasses in favor of a sturdy mirror. The more boxing matches the Scientist puts their hypothesis through, the more they’re able to explore the edges of their conclusions and tweak their ideas into crisper and more confident beliefs.

With some serious testing and a bunch of refinements under their belt, the Scientist may begin to feel that they have arrived at Point B: knowledge.

It’s a long road to knowledge for the Scientist because truth is hard. It’s why Scientists say “I don’t know” so often. It’s why, even after getting to Point B in the learning process, the Scientist applies a little asterisk, knowing that all beliefs are subject to being proven wrong by changing times or new evidence. Thinking like a Scientist isn’t about knowing a lot, it’s about being aware of what you do and don’t know— about staying close to this dotted line as you learn:


When you’re thinking like a Scientist—self-aware, free of bias, unattached to any particular ideas, motivated entirely by truth and continually willing to revise your beliefs—your brain is a hyper- efficient learning machine.

But the thing is—it’s hard to think like a Scientist, and most of us are bad at it most of the time. When your Primitive Mind wakes up and enters the scene, it’s very easy to drift down to the second rung of our Ladder—a place where your thinking is caught up in the tug-of-war.

Rung 2: Thinking like a Sports Fan


Most real-life sports fans want the games they watch to be played fairly. They don’t want corrupt referees, even if it helps their team win. They place immense value on the integrity of the process itself. It’s just...that they really, really want that process to yield a certain outcome. They’re not just watching the game—they’re rooting. When your Primitive Mind infiltrates your reasoning process, you start thinking the same way. You still believe you’re starting at Point A, and you still want Point B to be the truth. But you’re not exactly objective about it.


Weird things happen to your thinking when the drive for truth is infected by some ulterior motive. Psychologists call it “motivated reasoning.” I like to think of it as Reasoning While Motivated—the thinking equivalent of drunk driving. As the 6th century Chinese Zen master Seng-ts’an explains: If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.

When you’re thinking like a Sports Fan, Seng-ts’an and his apostrophe and his hyphen are all mad at you, because they know what they’re about to see—the Scientist’s rigorous thinking process corrupted by the truth-seeker’s most treacherous obstacle: Confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the invisible hand of the Primitive Mind that tries to push you toward confirming your existing beliefs and pull you away from changing your mind.

You still gather information, but you may cherry-pick sources that seem to support your ideas. With the Primitive Mind affecting your emotions, it just feels good to have your views confirmed, while hearing dissent feels irritating. You still evaluate information, but instead of defaulting to the trust filter’s middle setting, you find yourself flip-flopping on either side of it, depending less on the proven track record of the source than on how much the source seems to agree with you:


So the puzzle pieces collected in the Sports Fan’s head are skewed toward confirming a certain belief, and this is then compounded by a corrupted puzzling process. Compelling dissent that does make it into a Sports Fan’s head is often forgotten about and left out of the final puzzle.

When it’s time to test the hypothesis, the Sports Fan’s bias again rears its head. If you were thinking like a Scientist, you’d feel very little attachment to your hypothesis. But now you watch your little machine box as a fan, wearing its jersey. It’s Your Guy in the ring. And if it wins an argument, you might even catch yourself thinking, “We won!”

When a good punch is landed on your hypothesis, you’re likely to see it as a cheap shot or a lucky swing or something else that’s not really legit. And when your hypothesis lands a punch, you may have a tendency to overrate the magnitude of the blow or the high level of skill it involved.

Being biased skews your assessment of other people’s thinking too. You believe you’re unbiased, so someone actually being neutral appears to you to be biased in the other direction, while someone who shares your bias appears to be neutral. As this process wears on, it’s no surprise that the Sports Fan often ends up just where they were hoping to—at their preferred Point B.

On this second rung of the Ladder, the hyper-optimized learning machine that is the Scientist’s brain has become hampered by a corrupting motivation. But despite learning less than the Scientist, the Sports Fan usually feels a little more confident about their beliefs.


Sports Fans are stubborn, but they’re not hopeless. The Higher Mind is still a strong presence in their head, and if dissenting evidence is strong enough, the Sports Fan will grudgingly change their mind. Underneath all the haze of cognitive bias, Sports Fans still care most about finding the truth.

Drift down any further, though, and you cross the Ladder midpoint and become a different kind of thinker entirely. Down on the low rungs, the Primitive Mind has the edge in the tug-of-war. Whether you’ll admit it or not (you won’t), the desire to feel right, and appear right, has overcome your desire to be right. And when some other motivation surpasses your drive for truth, you leave the world of intellectual integrity and enter a new place.


Inconvincible Land is a world of green grass, blue sky, and a bunch of people whose beliefs can’t be swayed by any amount of evidence. When you end up here, it means you’ve become a disciple of some line of thinking—a religion, a political ideology, the dogma of a subculture. Either way, your intellectual integrity has taken a backseat to intellectual loyalty.

As we descend into Inconvincible Land, we hit the Ladder’s third rung.

Rung 3: Thinking like an Attorney


An Attorney and a Sports Fan have things in common. They’re both conflicted between the intellectual values of truth and confirmation. The critical difference is which value, deep down, they hold more sacred. A Sports Fan wants to win, but when pushed, cares most about truth. But it’s an Attorney’s job to win, and nothing can alter their allegiance.

Because would this be a good attorney?


No, it wouldn’t. An Attorney is on a team, period.

When you’re thinking like an Attorney, you don’t start at Point A at all. You start at Point B. The client is not guilty. Now let’s figure out why.


From there you’ll go through your due diligence, cherry-picking evidence and piecing together an argument that leads right where you want it to.

This isn’t a criticism of real-world attorneys. In an actual courtroom, the attorney’s way of thinking makes sense—because each attorney’s case is only half of what will be presented to the jury. Real-world attorneys know that the best way for the system to yield truth is for them to make the best possible case for one side of the story. But on our Ladder, the cognitive Attorney’s head is like a courtroom with only one side represented—in other words, a corrupt courtroom where the ruling is predetermined.

The Attorney treats their preferred beliefs not like an experiment that can be revised, or even a favorite sports team, but like a client. Motivated reasoning becomes obligated reasoning, and the gathering, evaluating, and puzzling processes function like law associates whose only job is to help build the case for Point B.

If someone really wants to believe something—that the Earth is flat, that 9/11 was orchestrated by Americans, that the CIA is after them— the human brain will find a way to make that belief seem perfectly clear and irrefutable. For the Attorney, the hypothesis formation stage is really a belief-strengthening process. They inevitably end up with the same viewpoints they started with, now beefed up with a refreshed set of facts and arguments that remind them just how right they are.

In the hypothesis testing phase, the Attorney’s refusal to genuinely listen to a dissenter, combined with a bag of logical fallacy tricks and their strong sense of conviction, ensures that they’re an absolutely infuriating person to argue with. The Attorney’s opponents will feel like they’re arguing with a brick wall, and by the end, it’ll be clear that nothing they could have said—nothing whatsoever—would have made the Attorney say, “Hmm that’s a good point. I need to think about that. Maybe I’m wrong.”


The result of thinking like an Attorney is that your brain’s incredible ability to learn new things is mostly shut down. Even worse, your determination to confirm your existing beliefs leaves you confident about a bunch of things that aren’t true. Your efforts only make you more delusional. If there’s anything you can say about Attorney thinking, it’s that it at least acknowledges the concept of the knowledge-building process. When you’re thinking like an Attorney, you’re inconvincible, but you’re not that big an internal shift away from high-rung thinking. From somewhere in the periphery of your mind, the voice of the Higher Mind still carries some weight. And if you can learn to listen to it and value it, maybe things can change.

But sometimes, there are beliefs that your Primitive Mind holds so dear that your Higher Mind has no influence at all over how you think about them. When dealing with these topics, ideas and people feel inseparable and changing your mind feels like an existential threat. You’re on the bottom rung.

Rung 4: Thinking like a Zealot


Imagine you’ve just had your first baby. Super exciting, right?

And every day when you look at your baby, you can’t believe how cute it is.


This is the relationship Zealots have with their sacred ideas: the ideas aren’t rugged experiments to be kicked around, they’re fragile, precious babies to be adored and protected.

Just like no parent has to research whether their baby is lovable, the Zealot doesn’t have to go from A to B to know their viewpoints are correct—they just know they are. With 100% conviction.


Likewise with skepticism. If someone told you your actual baby was super cute, you wouldn’t assess their credibility, you’d be in automatic full agreement. And if someone told you your baby was hideous, you wouldn’t consider their opinion, you’d just think they were a terrible person.

That’s why the Zealot’s flip-flop goes from one extreme to the other, with no in between.


When Zealots argue, things can quickly get heated, because for someone who identifies with their ideas, a challenge to those ideas feels like an insult. It feels personally invalidating. A punch landed on a Zealot’s idea is a punch landed on their baby.

When the Primitive Mind is overactive in our heads, it turns us into crazy people. On top of making us think our ideas are babies, it shows us a distorted view of ourselves.


And it shows us a distorted view of the world. While the Scientist’s clear mind sees a foggy world, full of complexity and nuance and messiness, the Zealot’s foggy mind shows them a clear, simple world, full of crisp lines and black-and-white distinctions. When you’re thinking like a Zealot, you end up in a totally alternative reality, feeling like you’re an omniscient being in total possession of the truth.

High-rung thinking, low-rung thinking

The four thinking rungs are all distinct, but they fall into two broad categories: high-rung thinking (Scientist and Sports Fan) and low-rung thinking (Attorney and Zealot).

High-rung thinking is independent thinking, leaving you free to revise your ideas or even discard them altogether. But when there’s no amount of evidence that will change your mind about something, it means that idea is your boss. On the low rungs, you’re working to dutifully serve your ideas, not the other way around.

High-rung thinking is productive thinking. The humility of the high-rung mindset makes your mind a permeable filter that absorbs life experience and converts it into knowledge and wisdom. On the other hand, the arrogance of low-rung thinking makes your mind a rubber shell that life experience bounces off of. One begets learning, the other ignorance.


We all spend time on the low rungs, and when we’re thinking this way, we don’t realize we’re doing it. We believe our conviction has been hard-earned. We believe our viewpoints are original and based on knowledge. Because as the Primitive Mind’s influence grows in our heads, so does the fog that clouds our consciousness. This is how low-rung thinking persists.

Each of us is a work in progress. We’ll never rid our lives of low-rung thinking, but the more we evolve psychologically, the more time we spend thinking from the high rungs and the less time we spend down below. Improving this ratio is a good intellectual goal for all of us.

But this is just the beginning of our journey. Because individual thinking is the center of a much larger picture. We're social creatures, and as with most things, the way we think is often intertwined with the people we surround ourselves with.

Chapter 3: Intellectual Cultures

We can define “culture” as the unwritten rules regarding “how we do things here.”

Every human environment—from two-person couples to 20-person classrooms to 20,000-person companies—is embedded with its own culture. We can visualize a group’s culture as a kind of gas cloud that fills the room when the group is together.


A group’s culture influences its members with a social incentive system. Those who play by the culture’s rules are rewarded with acceptance, respect, and praise, while violating the culture will result in penalties like ridicule, shame, and ostracism.

Human society is a rich tapestry of overlapping and sometimes sharply contradictory cultures, and each of us lives at our own unique cultural intersection.


Someone working at a tech startup in the Bay Area is simultaneously living within the global Western community, the American community, the West Coast community, the San Francisco community, the tech industry community, the startup community, the community of their workplace, the community of their college alumni, the community of their extended family, the community of their group of friends, and a few other bizarre SF-y situations. Going against the current of all these larger communities combined tends to be easier than violating the unwritten rules of our most intimate micro-cultures, made up of our immediate family, closest friends, and romantic relationships.

Living simultaneously in multiple cultures is part of what makes being a human tricky. Do we keep our individual inner values to ourselves and just do our best to match our external behavior to whatever culture we’re currently in a room with? Or do we stay loyal to one particular culture and live by those rules everywhere, even at our social or professional peril? Do we navigate our lives to seek out external cultures that match our own values and minimize friction? Or do we surround ourselves with a range of conflicting cultures to put some pressure on our inner minds to learn and grow? Whether you consciously realize it or not, you’re making these decisions all the time.

Culture can encompass many aspects of interaction. A group of friends, for example, has a way they do birthdays, a way they do emojis, a way they do talking behind each other’s backs, a way they do conflict, and so on. For our purposes, we’ll again limit our discussion to how all this pertains to thinking, or a group’s intellectual culture—“how we do things here” as it relates to the expression of ideas.

In the same way the two aspects of your mind compete for control over how you think, a similar struggle happens on a larger scale over how the group thinks. Higher Minds can band together with other Higher Minds and form a kind of coalition, and a group’s collective Primitive Minds can do the same thing. One coalition gaining control over the culture is like home-field advantage in sports—a hard one for the “away team” to overcome.

Let’s first explore what it looks like when the Higher Minds have the reins of a group’s intellectual culture.

Idea Labs

Most of us know the term “Echo Chamber,” and we’ll get to that in a minute—but we sorely lack a term for the opposite of an Echo Chamber. When the rules of a group’s intellectual culture mirror the values of high-rung thinking, the group is what I call an Idea Lab.

An Idea Lab is an environment of collaborative high-rung thinkers. People in an Idea Lab see one another as experimenters and their ideas as experiments. Idea Labs value independent thinking and viewpoint diversity. This combination leads to the richest and most interesting conversations and maximizes the scope of group discussions.

Idea Labs place a high regard on humility, and saying “I don’t know” usually wins trust and respect. When someone who often says “I don’t know” does express conviction about a viewpoint, it really means something, and others will take it to heart without too much skepticism needed—which saves the listener time and effort. Likewise, unearned conviction is a major no-no in an Idea Lab. So someone with a reputation for bias or arrogance or dishonesty will be met with a high degree of skepticism, no matter how much conviction they express.

Idea Labs also love arguments. Ideas in an Idea Lab are treated like hypotheses, which means people are always looking for opportunities to test what they’ve been thinking about. Idea Labs are the perfect boxing ring for that testing.

Sometimes high-rung thinkers engage in debate, defending an idea, strenuously arguing for its validity.


Other times, they’ll engage in dialectic, joining the dissenter in examining their idea.


They may even try flipping sides and playing devil’s advocate, debating against someone who agrees with them in order to see their idea through another lens.


People in an Idea Lab don’t usually take arguments personally because Idea Lab culture is built around the core notion that people and ideas are separate things. People are meant to be respected, ideas are meant to be batted around and picked apart.

Perhaps most importantly, an Idea Lab helps its members stay high up on the Ladder. No one thinks like pure top-rung Scientists all the time. More often, after a brief stint on the top rung during an especially lucid and humble period, we start to like the new epiphanies we gleaned up there a little too much, and we quickly drop down to the Sports Fan rung. And that’s okay. It might even be optimal to be a little over-confident in our intellectual lives. Rooting for our ideas—a new philosophy, a new lifestyle choice, a new business strategy— allows us to really give them a try, somewhat liberated from the constant “but are we really sure about this?” nag from the Higher Mind.

The Sports Fan rung alone isn’t a problem. The problem is that inviting some bias into the equation is a bit like closing your eyes for just another minute after you’ve shut your alarm off for good—it’s riskier than it feels. Getting a little attached to an idea is a small step away from drifting unconsciously into Inconvincible Land and the oblivion of the rungs down below. We’re pre-programmed to be low- rung thinkers, so our intellects are always fighting against gravity.

This is why Idea Lab culture is so important. It’s a support network for flawed thinkers to help each other stay up on the high rungs.


The social pressure helps. If high-rung thinking is what all the cool kids are doing, you’re more likely to think that way.

And the intellectual pressure helps. In an Idea Lab—where people don’t hesitate to tell you when you’re wrong or biased or hypocritical or gullible—humility and self-awareness are inflicted upon you. Whenever you get a little too overconfident, Idea Lab culture pulls you back to an honest level of conviction.

All these forces combine to make an Idea Lab a big magnet on top of the Ladder that pulls upward on the psyches of people immersed in it.

But what happens when a group’s Primitive Minds can run things their way?

Echo Chambers

An Echo Chamber is what happens when a group’s intellectual culture slips down to the low rungs: collaborative low-rung thinking.

While Idea Labs are cultures of critical thinking and debate, Echo Chambers are cultures of groupthink and conformity. Because while Idea Labs are devoted to a kind of thinking, Echo Chambers are devoted to a set of beliefs the culture deems to be sacred.


A culture that treats ideas like sacred objects incentivizes entirely different behavior than the Idea Lab. In an Echo Chamber, falling in line with the rest of the group is socially rewarded. It’s a common activity to talk about how obviously correct the sacred ideas are—it’s how you express your allegiance to the community and prove your own intellectual and moral worth.

Humility is looked down upon in an Echo Chamber, where saying “I don’t know” just makes you sound ignorant and changing your mind makes you seem wishy-washy. And conviction, used sparingly in an Idea Lab, is social currency in an Echo Chamber. The more conviction you speak with, the more knowledgeable, intelligent, and righteous you seem.

Idea Labs can simultaneously respect a person and disrespect the person’s ideas. But Echo Chambers equate a person’s ideas with their identity, so respecting a person and respecting their ideas are one and the same. Disagreeing with someone in an Echo Chamber is seen not as intellectual exploration but as rudeness, making an argument about ideas indistinguishable from a fight.


This moral component provides Echo Chambers with a powerful tool for cultural law enforcement: taboo. Those who challenge the sacred ideas are seen not just as wrong but as bad people. As such, violators are slapped with the social fines of status reduction or reputation damage, the social jail time of ostracism, and even the social death penalty of permanent excommunication. Express the wrong opinion on God, abortion, patriotism, immigration, race, or capitalism in the wrong group and you may be met with an explosive negative reaction. Echo Chambers are places where you must watch what you say.

An Echo Chamber can be the product of a bunch of people who all hold certain ideas to be sacred. Other times, it can be the product of one or a few “intellectual bullies” who everyone else is scared to defy. Even in the smallest group—a married couple, say—if one person knows that it’s never worth the fight to challenge their spouse’s strongly held viewpoints, the spouse is effectively imposing Echo Chamber culture on the marriage.

Intellectual cultures have a major impact on the individuals within them. While Idea Lab culture encourages intellectual and moral growth, Echo Chamber culture discourages new ideas, curbs intellectual innovation, and removes knowledge-acquisition tools like debate—all of which repress growth.

Spending too much time in an Echo Chamber makes people feel less humble and more sure of themselves, all while limiting actual learning and causing thinking skills to atrophy.

In a broader sense, both primitive-mindedness and high- mindedness tend to be contagious. While Idea Lab culture is a support group that helps keep people’s minds up on the high rungs, Echo Chamber culture pumps out Primitive Mind pheromones and exerts a general downward pull on the psyches of its members.


Given the obvious benefits of Idea Lab culture, it’s odd that we ever go for the alternative. We eat Skittles because our Primitive Minds are programmed to want sugary, calorie-dense food. But why do our Primitive Minds want us to build Echo Chambers?

Let’s zoom out further.

Chapter 4: Giants

Billions of years ago, some single-celled creatures realized that being just one cell left your options pretty limited.


So they figured out a cool trick. By joining together with other single cells, they could form a giant creature that had all kinds of new advantages.

So they figured out a cool trick. By joining together with other single cells, they could form a giant creature that had all kinds of new advantages.


Not long after cells started joining together to form animals, some of the animals discovered that they could go up another level of emergence and form even bigger giants made up of multiple animals.

Sometimes, when we see animals cooperating, it seems like they’re being considerate—but that’s missing the bigger picture. The emergence picture.

Take ants and spiders. Ants are furiously loyal. They always put the team first. The ants I’ve gotten to know in my life have a long list of bad personal qualities, but “individual selfishness” isn’t one of them.

Meanwhile, two rival spiders will compete with each other ruthlessly, both entirely self-interested.


So what’s the deal? Are ants nicer than spiders?

No. It’s just that spiders stop doing the emergence thing at the individual organism level, while ants go up a level higher—to the ant colony.


The ant colony is really the “independent life form” of the ant world.

If we look at how ant colonies treat other ant colonies, it’s a lot like the way one spider treats another.


Individual ants in a colony are kind of like the cells that make up your body, which cooperate with each other not because they’re nice, but because they’re part of a bigger life form.

Humans do emergence too—and like all things human, it’s complicated. First, in the same way we bounce up and down the Ladder, we’re all over the place on the Emergence Tower.

You might wake up in the morning with your psyche firmly on the bottom of the tower, feeling like a lone individual. You head to work, where you brainstorm a project with five other people, becoming part of a six-person thinking machine. After work you join a political protest outside, losing your sense of self in the exhilaration of being a tiny piece of a thousand-person megaphone. Depending on the situation, we can act like spiders or ants, and everything in between. It’s as if there’s an elevator in the Emergence Tower, and our minds take regular trips up and down.

Second, humans form weird giants. There are all kinds of ways animal species “glue” together into higher-emergence giants. Simple creatures like ants and bees achieve cooperation on a mass scale, which comes at the expense of individual autonomy. Complex animals like wolves, lions, and dolphins are more individually independent, but they also have smaller families, which typically limits the size of the “giant” they can make.

Early humans were similar to other complex animals—limited to small, tightly knit tribes. But at some point along the way, they figured out how to hack the system. By uniting through shared beliefs, shared culture, shared values, or shared interests, they shattered the previous ceiling on giant size and achieved something other complex animals couldn’t: mass cooperation.

When you take the already impressive power of human cognition and combine it with the capability of mass cooperation, you have a species with superpowers.

But here we come back to our Ladder, because the human Higher Mind and Primitive Mind each have their own way of doing emergence. Idea Labs and Echo Chambers are more than just group cultures—they’re two very different ways to build a human giant.

High-Rung Giants: Genies

Your brain is a giant of its own, made up of a network of 86 billion neurons. An isolated neuron is pretty useless.


But by communicating with one another, a group of neurons can move upward on the Emergence Tower and combine into a single thinking system that’s far more powerful than the sum of its parts: the brain.


A parallel phenomenon happens a few floors up the tower, on the human level. A bunch of people together, but not communicating, is just a bunch of individual brains in the same place. Language is important because it allows individual brains to connect, like neurons, to form a larger thinking system: a communal brain.


In his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talks about how group communal brains work:

If you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others... you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.

This is the magic of Idea Lab culture. While individual thinking suffers from bias, a diversity of biases helps the communal brain reduce blind spots. In a culture where changing your mind is encouraged, new findings spread quickly through the system, and all it takes is one member discovering a falsehood for the whole group to reject it. When disagreement is encouraged, new ideas can be tested as they’re being formed, in real-time, combining the knowledge- building efforts of each person into a single, dynamic process.

The result is a multi-mind thinking system that’s superior to any of its individual members at learning new things and separating truth from fiction. Let’s call this thinking system a genie.


Because genies convert disagreement into higher-level collaboration, there’s nothing stopping them from endlessly scaling up. For example, a research institution is an official Idea Lab, where practices like peer review generate a hyper-efficient genie. But then, research centers from different universities or even different countries can criticize or build upon each other’s findings, allowing many genies to combine forces into a global supergenie.

None of this collaboration comes at the expense of the individual. Quite the opposite, genies flourish when its members are independent thinkers. So people in a genie get the best of all emergence worlds: they can simultaneously thrive as free individuals and as smaller pieces of a larger system.

This is the Higher Mind’s way of building giants. When Primitive Minds take the reins, we end up with an entirely different kind of beast.

Low-Rung Giants: Golems

In 1245, the Pope approached a minister named Giovanni da Pian del Carpini with a request.


So Giovanni got on his horse and spent four months traveling 3,000 miles to Mongolia—a place almost no Europeans had ever set foot (Marco Polo wouldn’t begin his famous voyage for another 26 years).

An Echo Chamber can be the product of a bunch of people who all hold certain ideas to be sacred. Other times, it can be the product of one or a few “intellectual bullies” who everyone else is scared to defy. Even in the smallest group—a married couple, say—if one person knows that it’s never worth the fight to challenge their spouse’s strongly held viewpoints, the spouse is effectively imposing Echo Chamber culture on the marriage.

Somehow Giovanni survived the whole ordeal and, after spending four months with Mongols, made his way back to Europe. It turns out the Mongols were not overhyped. Giovanni wrote a book about how they lived and how they conducted their conquests.

Spending too much time in an Echo Chamber makes people feel less humble and more sure of themselves, all while limiting actual learning and causing thinking skills to atrophy.

According to Giovanni, the Mongol army was organized using a decimal system that worked like this:


Giovanni wrote about the incredibly strict discipline Mongol rulers imposed on their army:

When they join battle against any other nation, unless they do all consent to retreat, every man who deserts is put to death. And if one or two, or more, of ten proceed manfully to the battle, but the residue of those ten draw back and follow not the company, they are in like matter slain. Also, if one among ten or more be taken, their fellows, if they fail to rescue them, are punished with death.

Pretty happy I’m not in the Mongol army. But I’m even happier to not be in the path of the Mongol army. Historian J. J. Saunders writes:

[Genghis] was adept at psychological warfare of the most horrific kind. He deliberately set out to create a reputation for ferocious terror in the expectation (often realized) of frightening whole nations into surrendering without resistance. There is something indescribably revolting in the cold savagery with which the Mongols carried out their massacres. The inhabitants of a doomed town were obliged to assemble in a plain outside the walls, and each Mongol trooper, armed with a battle-axe, was told to kill so many people, ten, twenty, or fifty. [...] A few days after the massacre, troops were sent back into the ruined city to search for any poor wretches who might be hiding in holes or cellars; these were dragged out and slain.

How many people can you name who lived in the 1200s? Like two, right? But you know about Genghis Khan. Everybody knows about Genghis Khan. Because Genghis Khan built one of the biggest, baddest golems in human history.

In mythology, a golem is a big dumb-looking monster, which makes it a perfect representation of the low-rung giant.


If the genie is the product of human collaboration, the golem is the emergent property of human obedience. Golems are what happen when humans act like ants.

Ant behavior has two components: strict conformity within the colony and total ruthlessness when dealing with other colonies.

On the internal conformity side, Mongol leaders viewed their army like a machine. If a member of a 10-man unit deserted, they saw that unit as a defective part in the machine that couldn’t police itself, so they tossed it out by killing the whole unit. This may sound insane to us, but if your only goal is to create the perfect golem, this is simply like cutting out a cancerous tumor before it spreads.

On the external ruthlessness side, the Mongol army had clear rules for settled societies that lay in its path: you’re with us or against us. If you immediately surrender, you’ll be allowed to join our forces and live. If you resist, we will destroy you, down to every man, woman, and child.

I use the Mongols as an example because they’re the extreme version of a human golem. But golems are everywhere. When a group of people exhibits a combination of strict conformity internally and an Us vs. Them mindset externally—militaries marching in unison, activists chanting a slogan, citizens raising a fist or saluting en masse, or just a group of people being super Echo-Chamber-y—that’s a group of people in golem mode.

The human cognitive weaknesses a genie tries to mitigate are the golem’s strengths. Confirmation bias tricks like cherry-picking, motivated skepticism, and motivated reasoning benefit hugely from economies of scale, as the snappiest and most convincing articulations of the sacred ideas spread quickly through the system. Individual biases, all pointing in the same direction in an Echo Chamber, scale up to make the golem’s ultra-biased macro-mind. And while individual minds inside a golem may have doubts about the sacred ideas, the social pressure of Echo Chamber culture keeps the giant as a whole steadfast in its beliefs. If the genie is the ultimate Scientist, the golem is the ultimate Zealot—a giant that’s totally certain of itself, totally unable to learn or change its mind, and worse at thinking than the average human.

But golems aren’t made to be good at thinking or finding the truth. The golem’s specialty is brute strength. It’s a group’s way of turning itself into a big scary monster.

We talked about how genies can seamlessly combine their forces with other genies to create supergenies. Golems scale up too, but in a very different way—based on conflict. Golems don’t just prefer the Us vs. Them mindset, they rely on it. The presence of a rival golem is a critical part of what holds them together. The way golems combine forces is by sharing a common enemy. If a group of golems vanquishes their common enemy, the alliance will often fracture into smaller rival golems to maintain the Us vs. Them structure.

Let’s try to jam all of this into a chart:


On the high rungs, individuals can thrive and grow, and human intelligence and knowledge can scale up exponentially. The low rungs squash individuality, breed delusion, and sacrifice group intelligence in favor of brute strength and large-scale conflict.

Which brings us back to the same question: given that the high rungs are so awesome, why are we so inclined to be down on the crappy low rungs?

It’s what our Primitive Minds are programmed to do because it was the best way to survive in our distant past. Low-rung thinking, low- rung culture, and low-rung giant-building are all ancient survival behavior—behavior that was necessary a long time ago but today seems a lot like moths flying toward streetlights.

When I look out at the world today, I see a rising epidemic of low- rung thinking and behavior. Too many of the Ladder struggles that exist in our heads, in our communities, in our political parties, and in our societies are slipping in the wrong direction.

In the introduction, I compared the path of our species to a big organism trudging its way up a great mountain ridge, with steep cliffs on either side. I see the high rungs as our source of stability and positive progress, and low-rungs as the force pushing us toward those cliffs.

To give ourselves the best chance to stay up on that ridge, we need to see low-rung psychology where it resides and figure out how to outsmart it.

The next chapter is going to go over one of the most influential sources that shapes our thinking today, the media.

Chapter 5: Narrowcast Media

The media shapes our lives in a bigger way than we can ever imagine. In our adult lives, the act of consuming new information about the world is the constructive function of our actions, behaviors, and beliefs.

If we look at all our consumption of media, our goal would be to have the most accurate, unbiased, and personally empowering media possible. This is an ideal however, below is a chart displaying one spectrum of a media plot, with a north star representing the goal.


Every media brand, media personality, or journalist can be plotted somewhere in the matrix.

At the top-middle of the Media Matrix is media’s North Star. Here you have media sources that are rigorous about both accuracy and neutrality, trying their best to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—along with acknowledging when they don’t know what the truth is. This is the realm of high-rung journalism.

As you move to the left and right of the North Star, political bias begins to creep in. Media voices will tell most of the story, but they may omit certain unhelpful-to-their-cause stories. When you get all the way to the upper corners, you have brands with a serious bias—careful about accuracy but not about neutrality. Everything they report is carefully cherry-picked.

As you move down in the Media Matrix, accuracy diminishes as a core value in favor of profit, entertainment, a political agenda, or something else. A news source down here is a steadfast ally to its partisan audience, and it stays current with the latest talking points in Political Disney World, even if that means twisting stories, using misleading statistics, pulling quotes out of context, treating rumors as facts, or any other form of bullshit.

From broadcasting to narrowcasting

In the 1980s, most Americans got their TV news from the Rather/Jennings/Brokaw trio on CBS, ABC, and NBC; in earlier years, from nationwide titans like Walter Cronkite. In those days, networks competed to capture the largest share of American viewers. They were careful to avoid seeming politically biased and they knew that reporting a story incorrectly could lead to damaged credibility and a loss of viewers. They were incentivized by market forces and government regulation not to stray too far from the North Star.


In recent decades, new technology has dramatically changed this landscape.

First, there was the explosion of cable television around 1980, and with it, the advent of 24-hour cable news (CNN launched in 1980). Cable channels, with hazier expectations than mainstream networks and 24 hours a day to work with, could be more experimental with the way they covered the news.

Take ants and spiders. Ants are furiously loyal. They always put the team first. The ants I’ve gotten to know in my life have a long list of bad personal qualities, but “individual selfishness” isn’t one of them.

Then there was the end of the Fairness Doctrine. In 1949, the FCC (the U.S. Federal Communications Commission) established the Fairness Doctrine, which required anyone who held a broadcast license to present “controversial issues of public importance” in a “fair and balanced” manner, giving airtime to “contrasting viewpoints.” In 1987, in the face of arguments that the Fairness Doctrine was in direct conflict with the First Amendment’s freedom of the press clause, it was repealed.

The removal of the Fairness Doctrine was soon followed by a sharp rise in overtly partisan media. Conservative talk radio exploded onto the scene in the late 1980s, most notably with The Rush Limbaugh Show, which debuted to a national audience in 1988 and made Limbaugh the country’s most syndicated radio host by 1991. In 1996, Fox News and MSNBC were born. Rather than broadcasting to all of America, these new media channels could narrowcast to a specific subset of the country.

In college in 2004, I attended a live interview with Ted Koppel, the anchor of ABC’s late-night news show Nightline. I remember the host commenting that Koppel was famously secretive about his own political leanings. This was the standard for prominent anchors in the past, but by the end of the 1990s, a huge portion of Americans were getting their news from people whose political leaning was supremely out on the table.

While these changes were happening, the internet sprung into our lives, and with it, sites like The Drudge Report (1995), Slate (1996), The Huffington Post (2005), and Breitbart (2007), along with a trillion political blogs and YouTube channels. The internet took narrowcasting up into a new gear: full-fledged tribal media.

Meanwhile, Fox News and conservative radio continued to grow in size and influence, generating an insular right-wing information bubble that persists today. This was countered with a new genre of TV news on the Left—political comedy shows. The Daily Show began in 1996 and became a multi-decade sensation by serving as—depending on who you ask—either the voice of reason and sanity in the face of growing right-wing madness, or a show where elitist progressives would cackle as Jon Stewart relentlessly mocked their political out- group. The Daily Show was followed by a slew of similar “look at how awful the Right is” comedy/news shows, hosted by Daily Show alums like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee.

Narrowcast media caters to homogeneous audiences, which decreases the incentive to worry about neutrality and heightens the incentive to provide viewpoint confirmation. Rather than tell people which candidate is likely to win the next election like the old days, narrowcast media reaps huge rewards for telling people why their favorite candidate ought to win. With little risk of reputation damage for biased coverage, narrowcast media can continually bash one side while giving the other side a free pass and end up with a more loyal audience for it. If broadcast media functions like a top-rung Scientist, narrowcast media functions like a third-rung Attorney. Because when the environment changes, so does behavior.

Junk food

Many businesses have learned that a great way to make money is to sell directly to the simple, predictable Primitive Mind. To sell food to the Higher Mind, you have to worry about quality and nutrition, which is expensive and hard. Instead, you can sell Skittles to the Primitive Mind, who mistakes them for nutritious food.


If professional news coverage is nutritious food, political junk food looks like this(all actual headlines):

The confirmation promised by these kinds of headlines looks as delectable to the Primitive Mind as the sweet sustenance promised by a Skittles wrapper. Political junk food isn’t geared toward learning. The headlines tell you from the get-go which side will win and which side will lose. It combines three of the Primitive Mind’s favorite things: viewpoint/identity confirmation, out-group bashing, and gossip.

The explosion of the political junk food market has dragged many American minds downward into Political Disney World, the land of good guys, bad guys, and simple storylines—which in turn has continually raised the demand for junk food.

The further this cycle goes, the harder it is to reverse. Media brands that offer up one-sided tribal junk food end up alienating high-rung minds, which makes the brands that much more dependent on the junk-food-loving low-rung audience. And tens of millions of Americans end up with political diabetes.

As the media junk food industry has grown and matured, it has increasingly immersed its audience in a new, hideous genre of entertainment:


Political reality TV

Broadcast TV news aimed to be a show about reality. Narrowcast news tries to be a reality show. Big difference.

Reality is interesting sometimes. Reality shows are interesting all the time. And what’s the reality TV producer’s best trick? Drama and negativity. Would anyone watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills if the characters got along most of the time? Of course not. That’s why every five minutes of the show includes a conflict of some kind.

As soon as you realize that news media is also entertainment media, the constant coverage of conflict and drama makes perfect sense. In the U.S., many of us are addicted to a trashy reality show I call The Real Politicians of Washington D.C.

The cast changes from year to year, but the formula is the same: there are whole teams of heroes and villains, lots of ongoing storylines, and endless conflict. It’s a perfect vehicle for a dramatic, super-addictive soap opera.

It’s not that these heavily featured politicians or the played-up storylines are unimportant. It’s that we receive a totally skewed depiction of the full set of relevant political issues. The issues that make headlines day in and day out are usually overrepresented, while lots of other important political stories—like the bills being approved each week by the 50 House and Senate committees—are woefully underreported.

I recently had a chance to talk with a U.S. representative named Derek Kilmer. Kilmer is the former head of a major congressional coalition of moderate Democrats with 99 members. He’s full of nuanced, measured, well-thought-out ideas for how to make the country better. Which is exactly why you’ve never heard of him. The editors of The Real Politicians waste no airtime on politicians like Kilmer because he’s measured and nuanced and I’m falling asleep just writing this sentence.

Actual politics, like actual reality, is boring to most people. So tribal media brands do what reality TV producers do—they manufacture a carefully edited, fictional version of politics that’s wildly entertaining.

That’s why most Americans who will tell you they’re passionate about politics can barely name ten current members of Congress. They probably can’t name all the U.S. representatives from their state, let alone members of their state legislatures. But they can tell you about the 10 or 15 politicians chosen by the media to be the main characters on The Real Politicians, along with the five or ten hot button issues the show features in any given month.

Concentrated tribalism has led to increased division—but The Real Politicians adds fuel to the fire by making the distinction between the parties seem even more stark than it actually is.

Take the issue of climate change, where we’re regularly presented with this storyline:


So I was surprised to see this data:


Which suggests that things are more like this:


Very different story. Of course, it’s also true that many Republican politicians have been dismissive of climate change. And “doing things to protect the environment” is not necessarily the same as taking action to curb emissions. But the survey makes me feel very differently about the strategies climate activists should be using to build the necessary coalition to change our trajectory.

Presenting an inaccurate version of reality breeds misplaced anger and division and hurts our ability to move toward important goals—all in the name of editing the reality show to be more entertaining with crisper, juicier storylines.

The most dramatic events on The Real Politicians are elections. Elections are the show’s climactic season finales. And the show’s editors make sure to over-dramatize the shit out of them.

This is the past century of U.S. presidential elections.


It’s a clear zig-zag pattern. And yet, I remember when Bush won reelection in 2004, media commentators were talking about how Democrats couldn’t win races anymore for a number of seemingly rock-solid sociological reasons. Then the Democrats swept the midterms in 2006 and won the presidency in 2008.

I remember in 2012, when Obama won reelection, hearing people say that the country had fundamentally shifted, that there were more first-generation Americans than there used to be, that the Tea Party had rendered the Republican Party irrelevant, and all of this other proof that times had changed and the Democrats wouldn’t ever lose a presidential election again.

Then Republicans swept all three branches of government in 2016, at which point I read all these articles about how the Left is more culturally powerful, but the Right is simply more politically powerful. I also heard a bunch of stuff about how gerrymandering ensured that the Democrats would never win back the House again. In 2018, the Democrats won the House and then swept the Congress, Senate, and presidency in 2020.

I don’t know what truly motivates today’s media. Maybe they make politically motivated propaganda. Maybe they make profit-motivated entertainment, which happens to double as political propaganda. Whatever the motivation, the consequence is the same: enhanced political tribalism.

Around a decade after the transformation to narrowcasting began, another technological development added even more fuel to the fire.

Internet Algorithms

I appreciate the Google search algorithm. It filters results that are most relevant to where I live and what I’m typically interested in, and it can guess remarkably well what I want to search for after I type just a few letters, saving me the trouble of typing the whole search.

I appreciate the YouTube algorithm, which knows my favorite channels and makes sure I never miss their latest videos.

I appreciate the Facebook algorithm, which spares me the knowledge of what Jake from high school 20 years ago made for dinner last night while making sure to let me know when Jake gets engaged, so I can go look through his 87 most recent photos to see the deal with his fiancé.

Internet algorithms can be great things.

But new technology often comes along with unanticipated consequences.

When I’m watching a YouTube video and I glance at the thumbnails on the sidebar, I’m more likely to click on a video featuring someone explaining history or science than I am to click on a video featuring someone reviewing movies. YouTube has picked up on that, which is why I never see movie review videos on my YouTube sidebar, but I’m constantly being introduced to new history or science explainer videos.

But then one night last year, someone sent me a funny video a driver took with their phone. The driver taking the video had pissed off another driver, who opened his window and started screaming curses. The angry driver got so worked up that he swung his arm at the video- taking driver angrily, and in the process, punched his own side mirror off. A delight of all delights.

Then the video ended, and YouTube offered me my choice of nine more videos in the road rage genre. I clicked on one of them and watched it. Then YouTube offered me nine more. I had a lot of work to do, so I held down the Command key and clicked on all nine, opening them in nine new tabs, and watched them all. Two hours later, utterly disgusted with myself, I pulled the dramatic “punishing Chrome by holding down Command-Q and closing all eight Chrome windows and all 127 of their open tabs” move. A nightmare waste of time. But at least it was over.

Except it wasn’t over. Somewhere out there, the YouTube algorithm was baiting its Tim Urban fishhook with the best of the best road rage videos, which have reliably appeared in my YouTube sidebar ever since that regrettable night, damning me to an entire life wasted watching hilarious road rage videos.

Internet algorithms are profit-maximizing mechanisms that want to spoon-feed me whatever I’m most likely to click on. This is a win-win, symbiotic relationship—until it’s not. When an algorithm is jibing with your Higher Mind, it’s your friend. When it’s luring in your Primitive Mind against your Higher Mind’s will, the relationship is parasitic.

So how does this apply to politics? Primitive Minds like to click on political junk food. They’re drawn to articles and videos that don’t just report the news but sensationalize it and make it entertaining. The YouTube sidebar can quickly turn into a wall of The Real Politicians of Washington D.C. content the same way YouTube inundated me with road rage videos. This feeds political tribalism and distorts our picture of reality.

Then there’s social media, a phenomenon so peculiar and so specific to modern times that it would seem incomprehensible to everyone who came before us. Social media doesn’t just amplify political junk food, it plays a role in shaping it. When a new political news story makes waves, thousands of hot takes quickly bubble up. It’s not necessarily the most accurate takes that rise to the top but those that are most likely to make people click the retweet or share button— those that have the catchiest wording and hit the right emotional buttons. Through an almost evolutionary process, complex topics are dumbed down and packaged into irresistible nuggets for our Primitive Minds.

Only a minority of people are hyperpartisan. But internet algorithms make people who are already extreme even more extreme. On social media, these voices disproportionately drive the conversation, making people feel like things are even more nasty and polarized than they actually are.

In the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma, computer scientist Jaron Lanier uses Wikipedia as an example to highlight the craziness of this situation:

When you go to a [Wikipedia] page, you’re seeing the same thing as other people. So it’s one of the few things online that we at least hold in common. Now, just imagine for a second that Wikipedia said, “We’re gonna give each person a different customized definition, and we’re gonna be paid by people for that.” So, Wikipedia would be spying on you. Wikipedia would calculate, “What’s the thing I can do to get this person to change a little bit on behalf of some commercial interest?” Right? And then it would change the entry. Can you imagine that? Well, you should be able to, ‘cause that’s exactly what’s happening on Facebook. It’s exactly what’s happening in your YouTube feed.

What happens on social media often determines what happens in the actual media. In his book Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein talks about the way journalists choose what to cover—the way they decide what is newsworthy. “A shortcut to newsworthiness,” he says, “has always been whether other news organizations are covering a story— if they are, then it’s newsworthy by definition.”

In the past, audience members had limited ability to influence what news was covered. But social media changes the equation. “In the modern era,” Klein writes, “a shortcut to newsworthiness is social media virality; if people are already talking about a story or a tweet, that makes it newsworthy almost by definition.”

It’s a vicious cycle. As political junk food pulls audiences further into Political Disney World,23 the low-rung narratives go more viral, more often, on social media. These viral narratives are then converted into a wave of new junk food media content, which reinforces and legitimizes the ideas circulating on social media. The connectivity of the internet melds media and its audiences into a single self-perpetuating system.

It's no surprise where all this leaves us.

Separate Realities

Pew data, collected since 1994, shows us that the gap between the viewpoints of Democrats and Republicans has grown on a selection of issues across the board:


Averaging out the growth of the gap in those ten graphs yields a smooth upward trend—even as gaps in viewpoints between other kinds of demographics have remained unchanged:


When we hear about growing political division, most of us assume it means citizens are divided in their values—that people are unable to agree about What Should Be. But take another look at the ten questions from Pew. There’s an element of What Should Be embedded in some of the questions—but mostly, they are questions about What Is. Many are statements about the status quo that the two political sides do not agree on.

We see the same story again and again. A 2020 poll called Dueling Realities found that 81% of Republicans believe “the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists,” while 78% of Democrats believe “the Republican Party has been taken over by racists.” In 2022, Pew found that 72% of Americans believe that “on the issues that matter to them, their side in politics has been losing more often than winning” while only 24% felt that their side was winning more than losing—a natural result of political media that increasingly focuses on grievance and negativity.

A 2017 survey titled “The Parties in our Heads” had an even more revealing finding: the more political news respondents consumed, the more skewed their perception of members of the other party.

Separate realities are a natural consequence of market incentives moving from the North Star region closer to the lower corners of the Media Matrix, where there’s almost no overlap in coverage between the two sides. It makes sense that those most hooked on political media would be the most delusional, the same way consumers of political news in dog-raccoon-ville left the pro-dog and pro-raccoon crowds with totally different perceptions of reality.

A Rise in Bigotry

News media is infamous for what we could call “destructive cherry- picking”—a selection bias that sees negative stories as the most newsworthy, because they draw the most interest. It’s why, for example, Americans surveyed by Gallup since 1990 consistently think crime is increasing, even though in almost every one of those years, it decreased from the year before.

Destructive cherry-picking spreads fear and pessimism, and over the past 20 years, it’s been steadily on the rise. In political media, this can have especially dangerous consequences.

Geographic sorting means many people barely spend time with anyone on the other political side, so the only information they have on what those people are like comes through distorted media and social media filters. The right-wing narrative floods right-wing people with anecdotes that make it seem like everyone on the left positively despises them and everything they stand for, and vice versa. Outrage about these messages then spreads like wildfire on social media.

Vocal Primitive Minds activate other Primitive Minds. Presenting people with a steady stream of “they hate you” jolts awake their Primitive Minds, in many cases filling them with reciprocal disdain, clouding their humanity, and flipping on that ancient tribal switch that makes people want to band together into golems. Portraying a society where everyone hates each other becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So it’s no surprise that between 1994 and 2022, the percentage of people who rate the opposing party as "very unfavorable" has tripled.

It doesn’t take long before this awakens the scariest human emotion of all: disgust.

Like happiness, sadness, anger, and fear, disgust is a basic emotion, meaning that it’s hardwired into all humans. Basic emotions were helpful for survival in the ancient human world. A Google Images search for “disgust” shows a bunch of people, all making the same hideous face—squinting their eyes, curling up their noses, and exhaling (and if it gets really bad, exhaling turns to gagging and eventually vomiting). Scientists believe this is evolution’s way of getting us to close up our incoming passages and expel outward whatever we can, in order to protect ourselves when we’re in the presence of toxins or disease. We react this way to anything our primitive software believes is potentially dangerous and disease-carrying—like rotten food, blood, feces, or maggots.

The strange thing is that disgust can carry over to how we view people. There’s a sizable amount of research that suggests that when people are exposed to something that brings out their disgust emotion, they become harsher moral judges. In one experiment, a group of Canadians were shown disturbing-but-not-disgusting images of car accidents while another was shown photos of coughing people and other disease-related visuals. Then both groups were questioned about which countries they felt Canada should try to attract immigrants from. Both groups showed a preference for immigrants from familiar countries over immigrants from less familiar countries, but the group that had seen images of disease felt this preference much more strongly. In another study, participants sitting at a dirty desk were harsher in their judgments of a series of criminal acts than participants sitting at a clean desk. In another, a wafting noxious odor made participants feel less warmly toward gay men.

Scientists use the term “behavioral immune system” to describe the theory that disgust in humans is linked to xenophobia and discomfort with practices and rituals (especially sexual) that seem foreign or different to us—an ancient impulse we developed long ago, when contact with foreign people and practices often did put you at risk of disease.

The reason I call disgust the scariest of all human emotions is that it’s a trigger for dehumanization, and dehumanization is the doorway to the worst things humans do. It’s not a coincidence that two of the most horrifying events in recent human history—the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide—were made possible by disgust. Nazi propaganda constantly compared Jews to disgust-inducing animals like rats, swine, and insects. The Rwandan radio broadcasts that incited the 1994 genocide referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches” repeatedly. These are just two examples of a well-worn tradition.30 Disgust fills our mind with a special kind of primitive fog—one that turns ordinary humans into psychopaths who can commit or condone unthinkable harm without remorse. Scary shit.

Geographic sorting and political junk food make a lethal combo, ripe for disgust. It’s hard to feel dehumanizing disgust for people you know personally. Less hard when you rarely see your enemies in person. Less hard still when destructive cherry-picking teaches you only the worst about them. As affective polarization has risen, political opponents have gone from seeming like wrong or stupid people to seeming like disgusting people.

We like to think of bigotry as something that other people do. But we’re all capable of rank bigotry when our environment pushes the right buttons in our psyche.

Political bigotry is as real as any other bigotry. In a 2014 paper on political polarization in the U.S., political scientist Shanto Iyengar and researcher Sean J. Westwood find evidence that “hostile feelings for the opposing party are ingrained or automatic in voters’ minds” and that “partisans discriminate against opposing partisans, doing so to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race.”⬥

Bigotry is at its most dangerous when it goes unrecognized. The best tools to combat bigotry are social norms that penalize its expression—but today in the U.S., political bigotry is rarely treated as taboo.

Downward We Spiral

Human environments are made up of a complex fabric of culture, norms, values, laws, and prevailing beliefs. Changes to any element of our environment can trigger changes in other parts of the environment, which in turn can cause more changes.

We discussed the way that the advent of tribal media made people more partisan and more hooked on political junk food, and how the resulting rise in demand pushed media to be even more tribal and one- sided.

A similar feedback loop has taken place between voters and politicians. Increasingly partisan politicians draw constituents deeper into Political Disney World, and a lower-rung electorate is more likely to reward politicians who cater to the low-rung mindset and snub the politicians who act like grown-ups. As political tribalism has ramped up, the number of undecided votes has dwindled. It makes less sense than it used to for candidates to try to persuade moderate voters and more sense to run hyperpartisan, negative campaigns that fire up their base and increase turnout.

And as the media’s political coverage has morphed into a reality TV show, it has created an incentive system that rewards politicians who use inflammatory rhetoric. As the famously bombastic Representative Newt Gingrich has put it: “You have to give them confrontations. When you give them confrontations, you get attention.” Politicians who act like children are great TV, which incentivizes the media to give them more airtime, which helps those politicians win elections, which encourages more of the same behavior.

In the first part of this chapter, we talked about how the distributed political tribalism of the 1960s coalesced into a single, concentrated tribal divide—an environment that makes a populace more vulnerable to the pull of the low rungs. When this was coupled with other changes in geography, media, and social media, it sent the country spinning down a vortex of negative feedback loops.


This vortex has led us to a scary place I call hypercharged tribalism.


Hypercharged tribalism happens when a concentrated tribal divide reaches such intensity that it resembles a religious war, subsuming the entire society and the people within it. Hypercharged tribalism turns thinking, feeling human beings into loyal colony ants, overriding their intellect, their humanity, even their love of family and friends. It’s a form of group madness—a contagion that spreads like an epidemic, awakening the ancient survival instincts in millions of minds all at once, as huge groups of people slip into golem mode in lockstep.

Chapter 6: Changing Course

So What’s Our Problem? (A Recap)

We started this book talking about moths. Moths navigate using moonlight, and in the world they were programmed to live in, that system worked fine. The issue for today’s moths is that their environment has changed but their programming has not, so now they spend their nights doing pointless circles around your porch light.

I’m pretty sure this is our situation too. Human nature is a specific software program optimized for a specific purpose: survival in a small tribe, a long time ago. The modern world is nothing like the environment we evolved in.

Our human nature is malleable based on our environment. Our identity (the source of our human nature) is formed based on information. Information that changes our programming and the way we filter the world, build moral frameworks, and decide what actions to take in life.

We can boil human activity down to a simple operation.


There is a great deal of human nature in people. -Mark Twain

Human nature is a constant, and when you put that constant into different environments, it produces different behavior. That makes environment the independent variable. And human environments are complicated—for most of mankind this has solely included a physical environment, the surrounding people and cultures, the prevailing beliefs and belief systems, and the laws and rules.

We used to get all of our information from peer to peer networks. People sharing books, stories, and experiences with each other. There was no non-human recommendation system that any humans subscribed to.

Now much of the worlds information sharing happens through the digital realm, but rather than the information being directly sent from one person to another, we have placed an algorithmic middleman between you and the reader. The goal of this middleman is to filter the mundane, boring, or overly inspiring media which gets you off of the platform, and show whatever it can in order to keep you on that application longer. We become what we spend our attention on. We become who we hang out with and he internet made hanging out with crazy people normal.

If you question why the world seems crazy, then know it's happening not by accident but by design. Because the business model is to keep you engaged. Which in other words, is a middleman who cares not about who you are, your dreams, your livelihood, or your purpose, but instead solely about how much value and time it can take from you.

This chapter is about the persuasive technology that we have let capture the hearts and minds of our global consciousness. And persuasion is about an invisible asymmetry of power. When I was a kid, I was a magician. And magic teaches you that you can have asymmetric power without the other person realizing it. You can masquerade to have asymmetric power while looking like you have an equal relationship. You say pick a card any card. Meanwhile, you know exactly how to get that person to pick the card that you want. And essentially, what we're experiencing with technology is an increasing asymmetry of power that's been masquerading itself as a equal or contractual relationship where the responsibility is on us.

So let's walk through why that's happening. In the race for attention, because there's only so much attention, companies have to get more of it by being more and more aggressive, I call it the race to the bottom of the brainstem. So it starts with techniques like pull to refresh. So you pull to refresh your newsfeed that operates like a slot machine. It has the same kind of addictive qualities that keep people in Las Vegas hooked gambling with their life savings into a machine, except in this case people are paying their attention.

Another example is removing stopping cues. Imagine if your body got more thirsty the more you drank.

That's what happens with infinitely scrolling feeds. We remove the stopping cues, and create such a high dopamine activity that all other activities seem boring, this is what keeps people scrolling. But the race for attention has to get more and more aggressive. And so it's not enough just to get your behavior and predict what will take your behavior. We have to predict how to keep you hooked in a different way. And so it crawled deeper down the brainstem into our social validation.

Trends in mental health problems among US women and girls, 2001 to 2018. It's so obvious that something changed, and we all know what it is. These arnt normal metrics, this is depression, self poisoning, and suicide.


Though it's not the phones per se; it's the apps.

The distinction between phones and apps is an important one. I think if Steve Jobs were still alive, he'd do something about this. He'd see this as the app makers exploiting his excellent hardware to ruin people's lives for money. And he wouldn't like that.

If you flip it, it's much the same shape as the graph of mental health problems.


It's the algorithmic newsfeeds that incentivize "engagement" at the expense of our mental health.

While the internet and video sharing has been around for awhile, the advent of Ai (which continues to get better at predicting what will make us addicted to these social slot machines) is a concerning path for humanity.

Who can build a better predictive model of your behavior? And so if you give an example of YouTube. So there you are, you're about to hit play on a YouTube video and you hit play. And then you think you're going to watch this one video and then you wake up two hours later and say, oh my god, what just happened. And the answer is because you had a super computer pointed at your brain. And in the moment you hit play, it wakes up an avatar voodoo doll like version of you inside of a Google server. And that avatar based on all the clicks and likes and everything you've ever made, those are like your hair clippings and toenail clippings and nail filings that make the avatar look and act more and more like you. So that inside of a Google server they can simulate more and more possibilities if I prick you with this video, if I prick you with this video, how long would you stay? And the business model is simply what maximizes watch time.

This leads to the kind of algorithmic extremism. And this is what's caused 70% of YouTube's traffic down to be driven by recommendations, not by human choice, but by the machines. And it's a race between Facebook's voodoo doll where you flick your finger, can they predict what to show you next? And Google's voodoo doll. And this is our abstract metaphor is that apply to the whole tech industry where it's a race between who can better take your attention.

Facebook has something called loyalty prediction where they can actually predict to an advertiser when you're about to become disloyal to a brand. So if you're a mother and you take pampered diapers, they can tell pamper's, hey, this user is about to become disloyal to this brand. So in other words, they can predict things about us that we don't know about our own selves. And that's a new level of asymmetric power. And we have a name for this asymmetric relationship, which is a fiduciary relationship or a duty of care relationship.

The same standard we applied it to doctors, to priests, to lawyers. Imagine a world in which priests only make their money by selling access to the confession booth to someone else. Except in this case, Facebook listens to two billion people's confessions has a super computer next to them and it's calculating and predicting confessions you're going to make before you know you're going to make them. And that's what's causing all this havoc. So I'd love to talk about more of these things later. I just want to finish up by saying this affects everyone, even if you don't use these products. You still send your kids to a school where other people believing that anti-vaccine conspiracy theories causes impact for your life or other people voting in your elections. And when Mark Andreesen once said, you know, in 2011, that the quote was, software is going to eat the world. And what he meant by that, Mark Andreesen was the founder of Netscape.

What he meant by that was that software can do every part of society more efficiently than non-software, right? Because it's just adding efficiencies. And so we're going to allow software to eat up our elections. We're going to allow it to eat up our media, our taxi, our transportation. And the problem was that software was eating the world without taking responsibility for it. We used to have rules and standards around Saturday morning cartoons. And when YouTube gobbles up that part of society, it just takes away all of those protections. And I just want to finish up by saying that I know Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers testified before this committee 50 years ago, concerned about the animated bombardment that we were showing children, I think he would be horrified today about what we're doing now. And at that same time, he was able to talk to the committee and that committee made a choice differently. So I'm hoping we can talk more about that today. Thank you.

We know that internet platforms like Google and Facebook have vast quantities of data about each user. What can these companies predict about users based on that data? Thank you for the question. So I think there's an important connection to make between privacy and persuasion that I think often isn't linked. So maybe it's helpful to link that. With Cambridge Analytica, that was an event in which based on your Facebook likes, based on 150 of your Facebook likes, I could predict your political personality and then I could do things with that. The reason I described in my opening statement that this is about an increasing asymmetry of power is that without any of your data, I can predict increasing features about you using AI.

There's a paper recently that with 80% accuracy, I can predict your same big five personality traits that Cambridge Analytica got from you. Without any of your data, all I have to do is look at your mouse movements and click patterns. In other words, it's the end of the poker face. Your behavior is your signature and we can know your political personality. Based on tweet text alone, we can actually know your political affiliation with about 80% accuracy. Computers can calculate probably that you're homosexual before. You might know that you're homosexual. They can predict with 95% accuracy that you're going to quit your job according to an IBM study. They can predict that you're pregnant. They can predict your micro expressions on your face better than a human being can. Your expressions are your soft reactions to things that you're not very visible but are invisibly visible. Computers can predict that. As you keep going and you realize that you can start to deep fake things, you can actually generate a new synthetic piece of media, a new synthetic face or a synthetic message that is perfectly tuned to these characteristics. The reason why I opened this statement by saying we have to recognize that what this is all about is a growing asymmetry of power between technology and the limits of the human mind.

My favorite sociobiologist, E. Wilson, said the fundamental problem of humanity is that we have Paleolithic ancient emotions. We have medieval institutions and we have god-like technology. We're chimpanzees with nukes and our Paleolithic brains are limited against the increasing exponential power of technology at predicting things about us. The reason why it's so important to migrate this relationship from being extractive to get things out of you to being a fiduciary is you can't have asymmetric power that is specifically designed to extract things from you. You can't have lawyers or doctors whose entire business model is to take everything they learn and sell it to someone else. Except in this case, the level of things that we can predict about you is far greater than actually each of those fields combined when you actually add up all the data that assembles a more and more accurate voodoo doll of each of us. There's two billion voodoo dolls, by the way. There's one for one out of every four people on earth with YouTube's and Facebook are more than two billion people. Mr. Dan, thank you, Mr. Chairman and thank you, Dore Witnesses, a fascinating discussion. I'd like to address an issue that I think is of profound importance to our democratic republic.

That's the fact that in order to have a vibrant democracy, you need to have an exchange of ideas and an open platform. And certainly part of the promise of the internet, as it was first conceived, is that we'd have this incredible universal commons where a wide range of ideas would be discussed and debated. It would be robust. And yet it seems as if we're not getting that. We're actually getting more and more siloed. Mr. Dr. Wolfe from you mentioned how people could make choices and they could live in a bubble, but at least it would be their bubble that they get to live in. But that's what we're seeing throughout our society as polarization increases, more and more folks are reverting to tribal type behavior.

You may be thinking, tribalism was alive and well in the past, and we're seeing advances in technology in a lot of ways bring us back into that kind of tribal behavior, to what extent is this technology actually accelerating that and is there a way out?

There's a tendency to think here that this is just human nature. Now that's just people are polarized and this is just playing out. It's a mirror. It's holding up a mirror to society. But what it's really doing is it's an amplifier for the worst parts of us. So in the race to the bottom of the brain stem to get attention, let's take an example like Twitter. It's calculating what is the thing that I can show you that gets the most engagement. And it turns out that outrage, moral outrage gets the most engagement. So it was found in a study that for every word of moral outrage that you add to a tweet, it increases your retweet rate by 17%. So in other words, you know, the polarization of our society is actually part of the business model. Another example of this is that shorter, briefer things work better in attention economy than long, complex, nuanced ideas that take a long time to talk about. And so that's why you get 140 characters dominating our social discourse. But reality and the most important topics to us are increasingly complex, what we can say increasingly simple things about them that automatically creates polarization because you can't say something simple about something complicated and have everybody agree with you. People will, by definition, misinterpret and hate you for it. And then it's never been easier to retweet that and generate a mob that will come after you. And this is created to call out culture and chilling effects and a whole bunch of other subsequent effects in polarization that are amplified by the fact that these platforms are rewarded to give you the most sensational stuff. One last example of this is on YouTube.

Yeah, that comment was that another example of we used to have protections that technology took away. We used to have equal price campaign ads so that it costs the same amount on the Tuesday night at 7pm for any candidate to run an election. When Facebook gobbles up that part of media, it just takes away those protections. So there's now no equal pricing. In terms of what I'm worried about, I'm mostly worried about the fact that none of these problems have been solved. The business model hasn't changed and the reason why you see a Christchurch event happen in the video just show up everywhere or any of these examples. And then mentally there's no easy way for these platforms to address this problem because the problem is their business model. Thank you, Senator. Yes, this is one of the issues that most concerns me. As I think Senator Schatz mentioned at the beginning, there's evidence that in the last month even as recently as that, keeping in mind that these issues have been reported on for years now, there was a pattern identified by YouTube that young girls who had taken videos of themselves dancing in front of cameras were linked in usage patterns to other videos like that that went further and further into that realm. And that was just identified by YouTube as a supercomputer as a pattern. It's a pattern of this is a kind of pathway that tends to be highly engaging.

The way that we tend to describe this, if you imagine a spectrum on YouTube. On my left side, there's the calm Walter Cronkite section of YouTube. On the right-hand side, there's Crazy Town, UFOs, conspiracy theories, Bigfoot, whatever. And if you take a human being and you could drop them anywhere, you could drop them in the calm section or you could drop them in Crazy Town. But if I'm YouTube and I want you to watch more of which direction from there am I going to send you? I'm never going to send you to the calm section. I'm always going to send you towards Crazy Town. So now you imagine two billion people like an ant colony of humanity and it's tilting the playing field towards the Crazy stuff. And the specific examples of this a year ago, a teen girl who looked at a dieting video on YouTube would be recommended anorexia videos. Because that was the more extreme thing to show the voodoo doll that looked like a teen girl. There's all these voodoo dolls that look like that. And the next thing to show is anorexia. If you looked at a NASA moon landing, it would show flat earth conspiracy theories which recommended hundreds of millions of times before being taken down recently. I wrote down another example. 50% of white nationalists in a Bellingcat study had said that it was YouTube that had red-pilled them. Red-pilling is the term for the opening of the mind. The best predictor of whether you'll believe in a conspiracy theory is whether I can get you to believe in one conspiracy theory. Because one conspiracy sort of opens up the mind and makes you doubt and question things and say that get really paranoid. And the problem is that YouTube is doing this in mass and it's created sort of two billion personalized Truman shows.

Each channel has that radicalizing direction. And if you think about it from an accountability perspective, back when we had Janet Jackson on one side of the TV screen at the Super Bowl and we had 60 million Americans in the other, we had a five-second TV delay and a bunch of humans in the loop for a reason. But what happens when you have two billion Truman shows, two billion possible Janet Jackson's and two billion people on the other end, it's a digital Frankenstein that's really hard to control. When YouTube recommends Flat Earth conspiracy theories hundreds of millions of times, and if you consider that 70% of YouTube's traffic is driven by recommendations, meaning driven by what they are recommending when an algorithm is choosing to put in front of the eyeballs of a person. It's, if you were to backwards derive a motto, it would be with great power, it comes no responsibility.

Its time we take responsibility into our own hands.

Remember, each one of us makes up the environment of every other human and each one of us is capable of more than we could imagine if we are willing to devote ourselves to becoming so.

Many kings, emperors, and warlords of the past have done environments the Power Games way, governing with totalitarian power, strict laws, and harsh penalties in order to generate controlled and obedient behavior.

Thinkers of the Enlightenment believed they could improve upon this. They believed the same good behavior could be generated with a gentler, fairer, more hands-off form of government.

The digital world is an artificial environment, carefully crafted to both contain human nature and convert it into an engine of extraction. Like all environments, it’s a behavior-shaping mechanism.

It’s natural to take our environment for granted—to assume that that’s “just the way things work.” But the engagement algorithm is a human construct, held in place not only by laws but by the “support beam” of the high-rung immune system—by shared notions of what is and isn’t tolerable or harmful and by shared determination to uphold those standards. When that support beam weakens, the environment can quickly collapse back to the more natural human habitat of the Power Games.

In our era of exponential progress, rapid changes to our environment have put our culture under great strain. Primitive Minds have instinctually rushed in to fill many of the new power vacuums. New golems have congealed together and have begun stomping through our societies like Godzilla, growing more emboldened with each passing year. These golems have infected the societies’ vital organs—their institutions—impeding their ability to function properly and causing a mass crisis of trust. In the chaos of exponential progress, our societies are beginning to lose their grip.

We might think of our globe-spanning post-industrial civilization as an extended body. This suggests that humanity-plus-Earth has, at least, an opportunity to evolve into a unified, harmonic planetary super-organism, if we can make the shift — we might consider it a “quantum leap” — from competition to cooperation as our basis for our activity. Such a drastic mutation in our consciousness and social practices is not an overnight success, but a constant happening.

We might look at multinational corporations as the decentralized organs of our planetary super-organism. They build and operate the technological systems and infrastructures — the shipping lines, extraction industries, recycling plants, satellite systems, etcetera — spread across the Earth. Energy companies, for example, function like the body’s circulatory system, keeping the body moving. Media companies act like sensory organs: They register the raw data of what’s happening (wars, earthquakes, supply chain breakdowns) and convert it into memes, myths, narratives which guide the collective body’s decisions and movements. The money system functions like the super-organism’s nervous system, flickering instantaneously, directing energy and resources to billions of nodal points across the human/planetary symbiote. We can all be thought of as the neurons of the brain.

Our global colossus’s information sharing system has been hijacked with a demonic system optimized to signal to each nueron that it needs to be upset, that the body is sick, that the cell should attack other cells because of it, or get angry at them.

Unfortunately, we drive this gigantic apparatus – both made by us yet separate from us and seemingly out of our control – with the wrong set of goals and principles. Under the fragmented individualist/materialist paradigm, people, companies, and nations strive for power, dominance, and control. Forms of control include control over physical regions of the Earth, over intellectual property rights, or over human consciousness using techniques of manipulation and indoctrination. We have lost contact with other ideals or potentials that could redirect our still-immature super-organism away from toying with oblivion (currently we’re playing Russian Roulette with biospheric self-extinction).

This is an unfortunately common pattern through history. People who live through bad times, like the world wars, witness the fragility of human civilization firsthand. This harsh dose of reality has them saying, “never again,” which gets their priorities in order and leads to wise decisions. These wise decisions protect future society from the kind of bad times they experienced.

But when times are good for long enough, we start to get cocky. We forget that the only reason times are good is because of principles fervently agreed upon by people who had been through hell. When we grow complacent about those principles, the safeguards put in place by older generations deteriorate. And the people of good times never see the rise of new bad times until it’s too late to stop them.

It's kind of like a merry-go-round that societies get stuck on:


American poet Carl Sandburg once wrote: “When a nation goes down, or a society perishes, one condition may always be found; they forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what had brought them along.”This is a pretty good description of the “foolish people” part of the merry-go-round, and also a pretty good description of where I worry we are right now.

The stories we’ve talked about—of the decline of the Republican Party and the election of a demagogue willing to undermine trust in the electoral process; of Social Justice Fundamentalism hijacking institution after institution and rewriting the way our children are educated—aren’t really stories about political parties or political movements. They’re stories of millions of people standing on the sideline as people bully their Idea Labs into becoming Echo Chambers, as companies betray their founding missions, as politicians fail their constituents, as mass shaming roars back into fashion; silently thinking, “that’s not how we do things here!”

When a person is intimidated into silence, their mind’s light disappears from the world and is contained only to their head.


As millions of people have gone dark, the light in the national brain has dimmed.


Mass confusion allows divisive ideologies to indoctrinate more people, who join their armies of intimidation, causing more people’s lights to go dark as the danger of speaking your mind rises. Silence is contagious, and as it spreads, the big brain loses its ability to think straight and society grows ever more confused. This is the vicious cycle that makes a society forget history.2 This is how good times can lead to foolish people, who create bad times.

No society wants to enter the “bad times” phase of the merry-go- round. In a super high-tech era like ours, it’s an especially scary prospect. We live in a time of magical technology, and the power of the human species grows more godlike every year. This power is a double- edged sword, simultaneously paving one road to utopia and another to dystopia. As we move into the deeply uncertain future of page 1,001 of The Story of Us, there’s never been a more important time to have our wits about us.

Which is also why there’s never been a worse time for us to be spiraling down a vortex of confusion and fear. Exponential technology has given us countless gifts. But in the frenzy, we’re forgetting the most important lesson of all: the worst of our nature never lies far beneath the surface.

It’s not that these heavily featured politicians or the played-up storylines are unimportant. It’s that we receive a totally skewed depiction of the full set of relevant political issues. The issues that make headlines day in and day out are usually overrepresented, while lots of other important political stories—like the bills being approved each week by the 50 House and Senate committees—are woefully underreported.

We really can’t afford to get ourselves from foolish to wise the usual way, via bad times. Somehow, we have to figure how to become wise people directly.


People have asked me if I’m optimistic or pessimistic about our future. Truthfully, it depends on the day. While I can’t say I’m confidently optimistic, I believe there’s a strong case for optimism. A few reasons why:

The exhausted majority is sick of this shit. Both my own life experience and a mountain of data point to an enduring truth: Most people—old and young, Black and white, progressive and conservative, American and non-American—are good-hearted, highly reasonable, and yearning for unity much more than division. Most people want free speech, dislike cancel culture, and prefer respectful elected officials. The exhausted majority is a sleeping giant with immense potential energy.

The internet is a double-edged sword. The internet gave birth to a digital cudgel that has given power to mobs, but that same internet also means it’s almost impossible to truly silence free speech today. The kinds of tactics that have allowed extreme movements or authoritarian demagogues to conquer nations of the past are up against far greater odds in today’s ultra-connected environment.

Most of these bad stories are very recent. The majority of stories in this book happened in 2020 or later. We’re in the beginning of the story, not the end. There have been periods of chaos and instability throughout American history, and in each case, the country ultimately prevailed. There’s a reason liberal democracies have persisted for centuries: they’re remarkably robust and resilient.

The tide seems to be slowly turning. In the time between when I started this book and today, I watched confusion and fear swell up and then more recently, appear to wane a bit. Companies that have held strong in the face of SJF pressure, like tech giant Shopify, have not only survived but thrived. Voices in the media are beginning to show signs of their old integrity, like Erik Wemple’s late-2022 Washington Post op-ed acknowledging that James Bennet’s firing at The New York Times was wrong (“[It’s] long past time to ask why more people who claim to uphold journalism and free expression ... didn’t speak out then in Bennet’s defense. It’s because we were afraid to.”) The exhausted majority spoke with their votes in 2022, when they denied seats to every 2020-election-denying nominee for state offices that hold authority over the voting process.8 Over at Evergreen, the exhausted majority has spoken as well. Since the 2017 debacle, enrollment has fallen by 50%. The ACLU may not be what it used to be, but FIRE has picked up the mantle defending Americans’ civil liberties—and they’ll soon be expanding their work beyond college campuses. Every year, new organizations are popping up dedicated to civil discourse and bridging political divides—you can find dozens of them on bridgealliance.org.

But for this story to actually have a happy ending, this tide reversal needs much more momentum. And every person reading this can play a part in making it happen.

Chapter 7: So What’s Our Solution?

How does a society get out of a downward spiral of confusion and fear? With its opposite: an upward spiral of awareness and courage.


While writing this book, I found myself in countless discussions about the various topics in it. Some were productive, others weren’t. The unproductive discussions always felt the same at the time: I’m trying to reason with someone, but they’re a hopeless low-rung thinker. It’s like arguing with a brick wall.

But this is how unproductive discussions always feel. Even when you’re the brick wall.

Looking back, I’ve been writing and talking about the high rungs and low rungs while sometimes battling to stay up on the high rungs myself. There have been moments during research when I’ve caught myself judging academic papers by whether they confirmed or disconfirmed my hypotheses. There have been times during arguments when I couldn’t help but get emotional, where my ego was way too involved, where I was only listening to what the other person was saying in order to come up with my next response.

The first part of our solution is awareness, and the gateway to awareness is humility.

We all spend time in Unconvinceable Land as Attorneys, sometimes even as Zealots. We all identify a little too much with certain ideas. We’re all unknowingly standing on Child’s Hill with at least a few topics, where our level of conviction far exceeds our level of knowledge. When it comes to the beliefs we hold most sacred, we’re all prone to confirmation bias. In one way or another, we’re all gullible, all in denial, all delusional Disney protagonists. We all have out-groups and we all dehumanize the people in them. We’re all tribal. We’re all hypocrites. We’re all wrong. Because we’re all human.

The most important thing for us to remember is that we do our rational and moral thinking with a not-that-smart tool that was designed to keep an ancient primate alive. Staying aware of this can help us be our wisest selves and reach our potential.

So the first call to action is: Put your own mask on before helping others.

Do a self-audit. Where in your internal life is your Primitive Mind holding the reins? What are the triggers that activate your Primitive Mind and leave you buried in fog? Where do you tend to be at your best—consistently high rung, wise, and grown up? What is it about those moments that gives your Higher Mind such a strong advantage? Can you replicate that elsewhere?

Think about your beliefs. Play the “why” game with them, like an annoying four-year-old. Why do you believe what you believe? When did those ideas become your beliefs? Were they installed in you by someone else? Are they beholden to some tribe’s checklist of approved ideas? If they are authentically yours, when were they last updated? Your Primitive Mind thinks your beliefs are sacred objects carved in stone, but they’re not—they’re hypotheses written in pencil, and if you’re thinking up on the high rungs, you should probably be pretty active with the eraser.

Think about your values. If you love a political party or a movement because it stands for your values, and that party or movement slides away from those values, are you sticking with it out of tribal loyalty? Or because your values have truly changed alongside it? If the party or movement has departed from your real values, stick with your values. If you do, you’ll be accused of having changed—of having “left” the party or movement. But that’s not what happened. It left you, and you stayed true to yourself.

Think about the beliefs of those you disagree with. Do they have any merit? Could you state them to your opponent, in all their complexity, in a way that would make your opponent say, “Yup, that’s what I believe”? Or would you oversimplify or misrepresent those beliefs? If you can’t steel man your opponent’s beliefs, you don’t yet know whether you disagree with them or not. Everyone believes they are fighting on the side of the good, the right, the vulnerable—even your opponents.

Think about your identity. The truth is, you’re not a progressive or a conservative or a moderate or radical or some other political noun. Those are words for ideas, not people. Your mind is way too weird and particular to be locked in a noun or adjective prison. Attaching a political category to your identity is a heavy piece of baggage to carry around, and putting it down makes learning and exploring much easier and less stressful.

Think about people or groups you hate. Who are you disgusted by? Remind yourself that this is almost always a delusion of your Primitive Mind. You certainly don't have to like everybody. But when you’re disgusted by a person or a group of people, you've gotten swallowed up by human craziness. When you find yourself here, try one of these exercises to snap yourself out of it:

Think small. Imagine the little details of the life of the person you’re hating: the sticky note they leave in their kid’s lunchbox, the calendar on their wall with little plans written in the squares, the leftovers in their fridge from last night’s home-cooked meal. Like you, everyone else is ultimately just trying to be happy.

Think big. Read about the universe. Nothing makes hatred seem more ridiculous than internalizing how vast time and space are. Doing so makes me want to turn to anyone who will listen and hug them and say, “We both exist! On the same tiny planet at the same exact time! Hi!”

Think outside yourself. Every person has a unique childhood, a unique set of traumas, unique mental health issues. There are many people not lucky enough to be born as intellectually or emotionally intelligent as you were, not lucky enough to have an upbringing like yours. You have no idea what kind of grief, heartbreak, or other misfortune another person may be suffering through. However awful someone is acting, it would probably make a lot more sense if you could spend a few minutes inside their brain.

I’ve been using a little mantra. When I’m down on the low rungs and I have a moment of self-awareness where I realize I’m on the low rungs, I say in my head:


It’s not a scolding moment, it’s a moment of self- compassion. I’m doing that thing that every human does sometimes. It’s okay. I caught myself. Climb.

Once you’ve begun to address your internal tug-of- war, turn your attention outwards. What do your surroundings look like through the Ladder lens?

Think about the people you love. Where are they great at being high-rungers? Where do they struggle down on the low rungs? When someone is acting like a monster, they’re not a monster, they’re a human mired in an internal tug-of-war and losing. We all have topics that bring out our most biased, irrational selves. We all have areas of embarrassing ignorance. You might be a better high-runger than they are about a particular thing—but they are almost certainly better at it than you in some other area.


Think about your relationships, your friend groups, your work environment. In what ways is each an Idea Lab, and in what ways an Echo Chamber? Where are you being intimidated into silence by a social bully? Where are you the bully?

Think about the media you read or watch. Where does it fall in the Media Matrix?

We used to get all of our information from peer to peer networks. People sharing books, stories, and experiences with each other. There was no non-human recommendation system that any humans subscribed to.

Rather than search for the perfect media source, right at the intersection of accuracy and neutrality, assume that every company, every journalist, every podcaster, every talking head is flawed— because they are, because they’re all human—and diversify your media portfolio. Try to get a sprinkling from across the spectrum. Think of the various voices as the biased lawyers in the courtroom of your mind. Watching their ideas clash will help you, the juror, get closer to the truth.

Practice thinking “vertically” about your society, its industries, its cultures, its politics. Slap the Ladder onto all these things and see what they look like. Where do you see high-rung and low-rung psychology or behavior playing out? Where are people seeking truth vs. seeking confirmation? Where do you see moral consistency and where do you see hypocrisy? Who’s using persuasion to get what they want and who’s using coercion?

Awareness is an Inner Self project.


But the stories from this book were all made possible by millions of people not saying what they were really thinking. Awareness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for us to right the ship. Because awareness + silence changes nothing. This is where the second ingredient comes into play.


Courage is an Outer Self project.


We looked at story after story of companies and institutions facing what we called “a moment of truth”—situations in which leaders were forced to choose between integrity and popularity. In story after story, these moments went wrong, not because leadership didn’t know the right thing to do but because they lacked the courage to lead. My hope is not for the demise of the institutions we talked about in this book but that they’ll have the guts to start acting like themselves again.

Each of us faces the same kinds of moments of truth too, in our everyday interactions. These moments are hard because our not-that- smart brains are wired to be afraid of certain things it was good to be afraid of in 50,000 BC—like not pleasing authority, not fitting in, or being socially out-grouped. In many instances, having courage today doesn’t require putting yourself in danger—it just requires you overriding your Primitive Mind’s incorrect assessment of danger. Because a lot of what the Primitive Mind is terrified of isn’t actually dangerous at all.

One of the most consistent themes in the stories in this book is that people who have been attacked by a political golem—smeared, shunned, threatened, fired—said they received a lot of private but little public support. The invisible elephant in all of this is the giant mass of silent skeptics. In an environment like that, every time a silent skeptic starts speaking out and becomes a vocal skeptic, it has a huge impact.

But you don’t need to go that full distance to have an impact. There are different degrees of courage.

Courage level 1: Stop saying stuff you don’t believe

Marcus Aurelius once wrote, "If it is not right, do not do it. If it is not true, do not say it." Refraining from participation in something you don’t believe in is just a small step in the right direction—but if everyone did it, the world would be a whole lot better.

If everyone is expressing a certain political sentiment you don’t agree with or dehumanizing an out-group in a way you find distasteful, try to stay quiet and not participate. This can be easier said than done, because low-rung social environments put a lot of pressure on everyone to pledge outward allegiance to the tribe’s sacred beliefs or express hatred of the tribe’s enemies. Try it anyway. Think of it like this: saying things you don’t believe because others want you to is disrespecting your Inner Self. And your Inner Self deserves better.

If you find yourself being forced to speak up in a training or classroom in a way that will misrepresent yourself, or being pressured to apologize about something you don’t think you should have to apologize for, see the situation for what it is: a Maoist-style struggle session. And struggle sessions are fucked up. Unless it’ll have truly dire consequences for you, stand your ground.

Courage level 2: Start saying what you really think, in private, with people you know well

This is when you begin letting your Inner Self show itself in public.

Start with the people you’re closest with. Are there political or social topics you have to be in the closet about with them? If so, consider whether your relationship might become better and more interesting if you stopped self-censoring. Becoming more authentic usually seems scarier than it proves to be. And it might make the relationship closer, more fun, and less stressful.

This can also have another benefit: collaborative growth.

Try explaining the Ladder to people and promise that you’ll tell each other when the other is being low rung or acknowledge your own low rungness when you become self-aware of it. You’re building a support network, which can be incredibly productive. It’s not only great for everyone involved, helping to fast-track personal growth, it can help the group become more of an Idea Lab and less of boring Echo Chamber.

Of course, sometimes a person or relationship or group just isn’t ready for these discussions yet, and that’s okay too. Be as high rung as you can around those people, and some of it just might rub off.

Courage level 3: Go public

Class. Work. Church. Book clubs. Dinner parties. This isn’t an encouragement to become the insufferable person who always brings up politics. But if you’re in a setting where a conversation is happening and your Inner Self is screaming “I disagree!”—start saying, “I disagree.” I can almost guarantee that at least some other people in the room will secretly be harboring the same thoughts, and they’ll respect the shit out of you for saying it out loud.

You could go even bigger. Start a blog. Start a podcast. Write a book. Tweet a tweet. Spend six years writing a 120,000-word ebook/audiobook. If you already have a platform, start laying your Inner Self on it.

This is not for everyone. If you want to be a full hero and throw your career away going down in flames, all power to you (and you’ll probably have a soft landing into a group of awesome new friends), but I’m talking here to everybody else—everyone who can take their ideas public without any major consequences.

For many of us, the fear of putting it all out there is mostly in our own heads. Specifically, in our Primitive Minds.

If that’s you, here’s a tip for getting your Primitive Mind on board with the plan. Remind yourself that whatever you’re putting out there in the world will win you the respect of some people and lose you the respect of some others. And ask yourself: whose respect do I care about?

For me, that question had an obvious answer. The people whose respect I care about are people who think it’s cool to say what you really think, who think it’s cool to throw hypotheses out there, the people who like to play around with all kinds of ideas. If I put myself out there, in conversations, in larger settings, and publicly, I’ll end up surrounding myself with those kinds of people.

Conversely, if you’re hiding your Inner Self out of fear, you’re going to end up surrounded by people who like the person you’re pretending to be. Meanwhile, the people who actually like you don’t realize they like you. I can pretty much guarantee that your Inner Self has some major admirers out there. Why not find out who they are?

You don’t need to upend your whole life, lose your job, or destroy your friendships to exhibit courage. Taking any of these steps is way, way better than taking none of them.

Awareness is about looking out at the world and being able to discern the difference between the low-rung virus and the high-rung immune system. Courage is about becoming part of the immune system instead of enabling the virus. As the virus tries to push the national giant off the mountain’s steep cliffs, courage keeps your hands at the giant’s back, pushing it upward toward a more perfect union.

Just as confusion and fear are contagious, so are awareness and courage. When a person finds the courage to share their real ideas, those ideas spread and build awareness in others. Golems rely on the delusion of pluralistic ignorance (when no one believes but everyone thinks everyone believes). A few brave people speaking out shatters the delusion and makes others realize they’re not alone. When more people start saying what they think, it becomes less scary for others to follow in their footsteps. Soon, heads begin to light back up in droves as Inner Selves venture out into the world.


The Bright Sky in the Distance

Earlier, I quoted Josiah Lee Auspitz, writing in 1970 about “the struggle for the soul”. This is a fitting description of what’s going on all around us today: A struggle for the souls of long-trusted companies and institutions, political parties, and in many ways, whole nations themselves.

In the chaos of our modern era, the Primitive Mind raced out of the gates and snagged a cheap victory in round 1 of many of these struggles. But in the long run, I’d bet on the Higher Mind. The danger we face is not an asteroid racing toward Earth or an impending alien invasion—but only ourselves. We got ourselves into this, and I’m pretty sure we can get ourselves out of it.

Algorithms do not need to act like demons, they can act like angels too. The north star algorithm is attainable, this solution is not some fictional one that we may hope for, its a live project with apps out and users. We understand how big of a deal this is for humanity, and we made this writing so you can see it too, and hopefully become empowered to help one of humanities greatest missions, aligning Ai with our goals, purpose, and dream, happen.

I leave you with a story:

It all started with an algorithm. A complex formula that optimized for engagement and profit. It turned our devices into vices, the new way capitalists used to control our minds.

Vices are those habits that keep us from living our full potential. They are the distractions, the addictions, the temptations that consume our time and energy. They are the enemies of our happiness and well-being.

Devices are supposed to be tools that help us overcome our vices. Its literally in the fucking name. They should be allies of our purpose and passion.

Its 2023, and we were fed up with seeing how people wasted their lives on mindless scrolling and clicking on endless notifications. We wanted to create an app that would help people break free from their digital addiction and find their true calling.

We designed a video app with a unique recommender system that tried to empower users to get off the app as fast as possible. Instead of showing them more videos that they would like, it showed them videos that would make them like themselves and their lives. Videos that would challenge them, motivate them, educate them, entertain them, or inspire them. Videos that would make them want to take action and pursue their dreams.

The app was a hit. Millions of people downloaded it and started watching videos that changed their lives for the better. They learned new skills, discovered new hobbies, explored new places, met new people, and found new opportunities. They spent less time on their phones and more time on their passions.

The app sparked a worldwide search for the most empowering and inspiring videos ever made. People started creating and sharing videos that helped to unify humanity and heal the divide.

The app became a device in its true sense: a tool that helped destroy vices and unleash each person’s potential.

Our phones became supercomputers in our pocket that didn't control us but instead empowered us to be the best we can be.

As Ai got stronger and content creation became limitless, those who were stuck in the extraction algorithm were truly sucked away into unhealthy, depressed lives. Luckily, the more users that used the empowerment algorithm the stronger it got. It acted as a universal type of therapy / happiness / inspiration / spiritual machine that pushed people through the phases of self actualization.

It turns out all society really needed was everyone to have access to the right information to help their mindset, and things just started to flourish. It became obvious later that the solution to the Ai alignment problem was just to align Ai in how it most effected humanity, which is media and sorting information. Some people came to think of the idea of the holy spirit, or god’s love as the empowerment algorithm itself. As it simply optimized the best life of every individual as much as it could.

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