When a major decision needs to be made, and you’re no expert on the issue at hand, you probably do the same thing most people do: ask around. Like, if you don’t know the first thing about what investments to pick in your 401(k), it’s pretty normal to ask a few coworkers what they think, and then maybe compare their answers with a quick Google search. It makes sense.

I call it “the journalist’s method.” When a reporter has to write a story about something really complicated, like some new discovery in particle physics, they need to do some research first. But they can’t possibly learn physics from the ground up just for one article. Instead, they grab three or four people who know about the topic, ask them to explain it, and summarize what they hear. This usually works pretty well.

There are two big problems with the journalist’s method though. The first is that sometimes, by only checking with a few sources, really important info gets left out. And when you’re just asking a few friends or scanning the first few results of a Google search, it’s pretty easy to reach the wrong conclusions.

The second problem is even worse though, because it’s part of the way you think: Even if you ask more people or find more resources, you’ll have a psychological tendency to ignore the outliers, even when they’re actually correct. If nine people say the same thing while a tenth says something totally different, you’ll probably just assume that tenth dude is a weirdo.

Popular things flourish — sometimes only because they’re popular in the first place. I mean, just look up the peak chart position of “Baby” by Justin Bieber and try to disagree with me.

Herd Thinking Can Be Detrimental

Think about recent high school graduates preparing for college, having never made a financial decision more important than a couple hundred bucks. Imagine yourself in those same shoes, wondering if taking on $40k – $100k in debt over the next four years is a good idea. To figure out your answer, you might ask your other 18-year-old friends what they’re doing. When they all say they’re signing up for loans, you feel reassured. Everybody’s doing the same thing. What could go wrong?

When I was a public school teacher, we were given the option to receive our paychecks over the 10 months we worked each year, or to spread the same amount of money across 12 months (including summer) instead. Most new employees didn’t know what to choose. They asked more experienced teachers, and the 12-month option was overwhelmingly more popular — so that’s what they did. It didn’t matter that they were essentially just withholding their own money from themselves for no good reason, missing out on investment gains or earlier debt repayments. If nobody else was taking the 10-month option, it seemed like it was probably wrong.

Other times, our decisions are made based on social norms without even having to ask for advice. The alternatives are just so uncommon that we never even give them the time of day. Most people who live within 5 miles of work never consider commuting by bicycle, even though it’s cheaper and healthier than any alternative. The decision is just made implicitly because…nobody bikes to work around here, and that’s pretty much all there is to it.

A Precarious Position

Our website is full of a lot of really unpopular ideas, like:

If you do a few Google searches or flip on the news, you’ll find overwhelmingly elsewhere that:

  • The ideal length of a vacation is 8 days.
  • Most middle-class Americans spend $15-20k on a used car, or $30-35k on a new car (in 2019), and most adults don’t share their car with anyone else.
  • Financial advisors recommend saving about 10-20% of your income, and the national average savings rate is closer to 8%.
  • “Early retirement” means quitting your job at age 55, and you need at least $5 million to do it.

As a reader, this puts you in a pretty awkward position. I mean, should you trust us — two random strangers from the internet — or just dismiss us because almost everything we say is totally out of the ordinary?

Write Your Own Story

You really shouldn’t go along with anyone — majority or minority — blindly. When you’re making big decisions in life, keep this stuff in mind:

  • Seek out weirdos: You’re always gonna encounter the most popular opinions. Make sure you find a few dissenters, and hear what they have to say too.
  • Value logic above all else: Ignore the popularity of the options you’re considering. If one choice makes the most rational sense, chances are it’s the right one. Other people don’t always get it right.
  • Be bold: Life isn’t a multiple choice test. You can write in your own answer — even if nobody else has ever done it before.
Gif of Daria and Jane

Aside from being good fact-finding advice, there’s a deeper meaning here too. When you open yourself up to the possibility of thinking differently from everyone else, you set yourself free. Try considering things from your own, unique point of view, and forget about how other people might judge you for it. You’re gonna come up with some great ideas.

Think about all of this as you read our other articles. We’re not expecting you to imitate our entire lives or agree with everything we say, but it’d be cool if you didn’t dismiss us just because we say things that are a little different. If you want to add some variety to the viewpoints you hear on a regular basis, try following us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram — or sign up for our email newsletter at the bottom of this page. The worst thing that could happen is you disagree with us — and that’s more than alright.

— Steven

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