Beware Cargo Cult Thinking

by | Dec 30, 2019

Why won’t this fly? It looks like the other planes.

Richard Feynman on Cargo Cult Thinking

In 1974 Nobel Prizing winning physicist Richard Feynman gave the commencement talk at CalTech. His main topic was cargo cult thinking vs. scientific thinking. Here’s his explanation of what a cargo cult is:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Cargo Cults really were a thing – during WWII the Allied Forces created supply chain bases in Melanesia and planes came and went. Some of the cargo from supply planes made their way to the native islanders: canned food, canvas, utensils, etc. After the war was over the indigenous peoples of these islands recreated to the best of their ability what they saw the military people doing in their day-to-day jobs in an attempt to bring back the planes carrying cargo.

Thus, “Cargo Cult Thinking” is copying a behavior wanting to get an expected result, but not understanding the underlying cause and effect. The cause of planes landing on islands in the South Pacific during WWII was far more complex than clearing a runway, building a control tower and talking into a box.

It is sort of funny – the thought of these islanders trying to summon planes with their bamboo replica radios. But, what they are doing is just human nature. We all do it to some extent. We see other people acting in a certain way and observe their results and then emulate their actions without totally understanding the complexity of the factors that give rise to their results.

Some Examples

Here are a few hypothetical examples:

Example One: Suppose you are in sales and you notice that the top salesperson in your company is a member of a country club. You join a country club hoping to follow his success. Of course, the country club could have little or nothing to do with his success. Maybe it’s the data mining he does of prospects. It could be how he skillfully interacts with people. Possibly he’s super likable. Etc. Without replicating all of the factors the star salesman uses to bring in business, just joining a country club likely won’t make a difference.

Example Two: You learn that a few companies whose culture you really admire have redesigned their offices into an open office plan. Hoping to copy these companies’ culture you change your company’s offices into an open office plan as well. But, it won’t work. While having an open office plan can have cultural effects, company culture is the result of many factors. Maybe the other companies also do a great job of providing autonomy, purpose, and mastery to their employees — those factors likely play more into culture than office design.

Example Three: An investment manager who is very successful follows a contrarian stock-picking strategy: she only buys stocks of companies that are very out of favor. Her long-term performance is great. You decide to follow her strategy and buy stocks of companies that are having problems hoping to replicate her performance. This strategy is likely cargo-cultish. The contrarian investment manager engages in a lot more research, analysis and discipline in buying stocks than merely being a contrarian. So, merely being a contrarian likely won’t produce the same results as the investment manager.

At its heart, cargo cult thinking is not understanding cause and effect. It is seeing surface behaviors and ascribing causation to them when there are likely many other factors at play.

Cargo Cult Thinking Warning Signs

From the Coding VC blog, here are warning signs of cargo cult thinking:

  • People inquire about why you’re doing something, and your immediate response is 1) it’s what everyone else does, 2) it’s what your role model does, or 3) it’s what you think is expected of you.
  • You’re afraid to start/stop doing something because that would be different from what most people do.
  • You invest a lot of your time and resources into an activity, but you’ve never carefully considered whether the effort is worthwhile.

1 Comment

  1. This is akin to not using critical thinking skills. And seems to be a general lack of awareness. This is interesting. Something to share with my students as reminders before they graduate and think they are suddenly experts! Thanks for the IFOD, John.
    Happy New Year!



  1. CARGO CULT | cuma asal omong - […] Beware Cargo Cult Thinking […]

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