Cargo Cults: Why Imitating Success Makes it Impossible to Reproduce
An observation of isolated cultures reveals society’s most foolish behavior.
A fish can’t see the ocean, nor is it aware of the water it swims in. Likewise, as we struggle to understand ourselves, the largest and most pervasive influences on our behavior are often the most difficult to observe. “Cargo Cults” are a cultural phenomenon observed in isolated societies, but they give us a chance to see a human tendency we all share. In a desperate attempt to reproduce the success of others, we tend to imitate the wrong things.
What Are “Cargo Cults?”
Cargo Cults are materialistic religions that grew in isolated tribal societies after being exposed to visitors from Western civilization during the age of colonialism. These cults formed in areas like Melanesia and New Guinea, when European colonizers or American military troops visited (or took over) islands populated by otherwise uncontaminated natives.
The natives saw that the new visitors had lots of stuff or “cargo” that was really great. Even more, they were astonished at how these visitors attained their stuff. They watched them march with rifles in well-coordinated summoning rituals, and spend time writing magic lines on paper. Even more, they saw them setup great idols of worship like “satellite dishes.”
The conclusion was that these rituals and magic acts are what convinced the gods to send boats from the vast unknown waters filled with stuff for them. Of course, this conclusion seems silly to us, but it makes a lot of sense when you think about from their point of view. All they could observe were the outward motions and affectations of this wealth but had no insight into the logistics, technology, or infrastructure that creates it.
The native people then created “cargo” religions. They carved wood into the shape of rifles and marched in religious devotion to the gods of stuff. They built idols that look like planes and vehicles, but lack any function. They worship gods like “John From” (like, “I’m John from Boston”). They were convinced that by imitating everything they saw the wealthy invaders do, they could get the same results.
All Humanity Creates “Cargo Cults”
Sad to say, our natural tendency to look down on and dehumanize others has kept us from learning what this profound example of social behavior really tells us. These native people didn’t form what we perceive as silly “cargo cults” because they are less intelligent than we are. They formed them because they are human, just like us.
The imitation effect is a scientifically observed principle of human nature, written about under the theory of “Social Proof” by Robert Cialdini in the 1984 book “Influence,” and broadly accepted in behavioral psychology. Basically, in the absence of actual knowledge or understanding, we look at other people who have what we want (wealth, money, respect, etc) and imitate what we can observe about them.
If you doubt, just Google “things successful people do.” You’ll get a deluge of wonderful advice like “taking naps,” “starting your day slowly,” or “networking with other successful people.” Doing these things are pretty easy if you are already successful, but I doubt taking naps is going to help you climb the corporate ladder at an Amazon Warehouse.
For the record, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, prides himself on getting a full eight hours of sleep and avoids early morning meetings. I’m sure all his employees would love to do the same.
Imitation Can Produce “False Success,” and That Makes it Worse
Because the “Social Proof” effect is so strong, imitation can actually produce success for a limited time. If you dress like other people who look successful dress, people will assume you are successful. We don’t wear suits and ties because it’s “professional,” we wear this uncomfortable clothing because the French Aristocracy did in the 17th century, and we wanted to look like aristocrats. The style of our costumes didn’t come from “fashion,” but for centuries were simply designed to look like whatever the King of England wore, even in America.
Once Steve Jobs came out on stage to announce the first iPhone in his black turtleneck and slick minimalist presentation slides, start-up entrepreneurs started wearing similar clothing and creating minimalist presentations when pitching investors… and it worked! Billions of dollars have been invested in now-extinct companies because the founders did a great job imitating the affectations of other successful people.
Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the now infamous scam company Theranos, literally wore a black turtleneck and lowered her voice to imitate Steven Jobs. Theranos operated for almost 15 years without producing anything, just because Elizabeth “looked like” a successful person and foolish investors kept giving her money! Of course, now she is probably going to jail, but for the past decade her face has been on Forbes, Fortune, and Inc. magazine telling everyone else “here is what successful people look like.”
You’re Only Hope is to Leave the Cult
Economists have studied success for decades, and all the studies pretty much come to the same conclusion: Success is mostly determined by luck. The greatest predictor of success is where you are born. If you are born in a rich country, to a rich family, and go to an expensive school, you have to work really hard to screw it up. On the other hand, if you are born in a poor country, to a poor family, and can’t afford a nice college or university, you can follow all the “7 Habits of Highly-Effective People” and never get very far.
I don’t mean to say we have no influence or agency over our lives, history is full of “American Dream” success stories. But it is important to keep in mind we have these stories because they are the exceptions, not the rule. The point here is that success is seldom about imitating anyone, but rather about paying attention to what is really going on around you.
Almost every “self-made” successful person will tell you that they had a “big break.” Someone else noticed their talent and gave them an opportunity, someone believed in them and put them in a position to succeed, or they just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Until that point came, they struggled just like everyone else.
The Only Success We Can Control is Unique
Imitating behaviors of other people we see as successful is like playing the lottery religiously, but never saving money for any real investment. We are like little kids who think we can fly if we put on a cape like Superman (seriously, kids died falling off buildings after the first Superman movie). If you think about it, it seems like such a stupid thing to do. However, our culture is so imitation-pervasive that we don’t notice all the ways we still keep doing it.
The truth is that real successful people never actually look successful from the outside before they succeed. Suits, cars, and indulgent sleep patterns are all things that people get AFTER success, not what got them there. And yes, sometimes we have to imitate success just to get other people to give us a chance. The key is to never fool yourself into thinking those things lead to success. Real success isn’t sexy.
If we spend all our effort and energy imitating others we think are successful, we will never be paying attention to the real opportunities around us. Everyone is unique, with their own strengths, talents, and abilities. Even more, we are born into our own unique circumstances. Whatever success is possible for us comes from embracing those circumstances and filling a need within them.