“Madness is rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.”
A friend recently completed an extended tour around my home country, so I breathlessly asked her the question that every visitor, newborn baby, and even the occasional passing seagull is enthusiastically subjected to: WhatdoyouthinkofNewZealand???
“It was OK,” she said.
OK? It was OK? You’re talking about God’s own country,1 O philistine! What about all that rugged beauty? Those 30 million fluffy sheep? The bucket fountain where Elijah Wood did a wee? Did you even see the quite big statue of a fizzy drink bottle?
Yes, she agreed, all that stuff was indeed very nice. But considering how much money she spent, it bloody well better be. My friend is a budget-conscious traveler, and so she realised she’d rather spend time in countries which are more affordable and less-hyped, even if they’re objectively not as good as than New Zealand (which is, as we chant each morning while smearing our faces with marmite and pledging allegiance to the Laser Kiwi, the greatest country in the world).
Then I read an article by another friend who had been romping around Europe, and came to a similar conclusion:
Maybe it’s the tight arse in me, but I find that spending excessively on food/accommodation/fun just for the sake of being in a trendy part of the world diminishes the enjoyability factor by a minimum of 85%, by which point you may as well be somewhere else. We visited a good chunk of the European capital hotspots but were still more awe-struck by the rugged beauty of rural Morocco , the time-warp paradise of Albania, the delicious food of Bulgaria and the fairytale castles and villages of Romania. Your money will go twice or three times as far in those countries, and the relative lack of tourism means people will treat you better too. Want to make your money last longer? Go where the tourists aren’t.
As I was reading Kristin’s article, I’d just received yet another reminder of the madness of crowds. Some friends and I decided to escape the sprawling Auckland metropolis over Easter weekend, and head to a beautiful peninsular several hours out of town. By some remarkable coincidence, everyone else had the exact same idea at the exact same time. Spooky!
This meant getting up at hours that no man should be awake, in an attempt to beat the traffic. It meant paying a substantial premium for the holiday home we rented. And it meant being surrounded by mobs of our fellow Aucklanders, all of whom, as the graffiti in the public toilets reminded us, “should be shot a[t] birth”.
Dutifully, we spent a day visiting one of the alleged top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world, complete with hawkers selling T-shirts and extortionately priced fish and chips. We spent another day visiting the must-do Hot Water Beach, circling endlessly for a park before succumbing to the hustlers selling paddock access to dumb tourists for $10 a pop, then faithfully trooped to the small section of sand heaving with holidaymakers, and scraped out trenches so that we might huddle in a few inches of gritty water that alternated between scalding and freezing cold, with a breathtaking view of the ample buttcrack belonging to the German man digging in the next hole over.
For context: New Zealand has 15,000km of coastline, any given stretch of which is pretty much instant postcard material. My family home is five minutes away from a remote beach, with none of the people, no traffic, and a complete absence of teutonic buttcracks. Now, this was still a great trip, because it involved good friends and food and drink and sun and sea. But I realised we had somehow become tourists in our own country.
And so, having (hopefully) finally learned my lesson, I propose this general principle of travel:
If you skip the top-tier or ‘must-do’ attraction, you will usually have a way better time at a fraction of the price.
I’ve noticed this more times than I can count, but was too scared to say anything out loud in case I looked like an uncultured idiot. Privately, I think of most of these brand-name experiences as expensive box-checking exercises: been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. I wonder if we’re trapped in an Emperor’s New Clothes situation, where everyone is secretly underwhelmed, but no-one wants to defect from the agreed-upon narrative. Instead, we post up our happy snaps and loudly reassure each other how great it was.
The ‘go where the tourists aren’t’ principle scales all the way from restaurants, to attractions, to cities, to countries. If you visit the third-best thing or place, you might be one of the only foreigners there, with none of the touts. You’ll almost certainly get a more authentic experience, at much less cost. Better still, put aside the guidebook occasionally and leave some room for serendipity to strike. Most of my best memories have come from chance encounters and random discoveries, rather than anything found in a glossy brochure.
A quick caveat: I’m not sure to what extent this is a universal principle, versus a reflection of my own preferences. I hate lining up for anything. I will rearrange my entire schedule to avoid having to sit in traffic. Skipping the check-in and baggage carousel lines is one of the reasons I’ve been traveling carry-on only for the last couple of years. I firmly believe the only lines worth doing are white and powdery.2
So maybe it’s just my own quirks talking, but then again, maybe not. I think there’s a pretty good case that this is a solid general principle—especially once you consider the blind, herpes-like contagion by which things get popular in the first place.
The Matthew Effect of Accumulated Advantage
“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Momentum matters. An early breakthrough—deserved or not—tends to snowball into more and more good fortune. This explains everything from book sales, to wealth inequality, to the heights of trees, to the arrangement of stars in the night sky.3
The Matthew Effect suggests that popular things often get their start through what amounts to good luck. The rapid ascent is driven by something even more powerful than rocket fuel: social contagion. Our opinions and preferences cluster together, but it’s not because we’ve carefully evaluated them on their merits. We just want to feel close to our fellow social apes, and have something to gossip about around the water cooler.
In other words, popularity is a lot like herpes. After catching a lucky initial break, it manages to spread to a few hosts, then rides the exponential growth curve until it has planted its gentle, blistery kiss on 60 per cent of the population.
How do you know the Mona Lisa is the artwork most worthy of your appreciation? In theory, you’d have to:
- study every period and style of art and decide the Renaissance was especially awesome,
- compare Leonardo against all his contemporaries,
- compare the Mona Lisa with his 15 other known paintings and hundreds of sketches,
- independently decide, while paying no mind to the general consensus, that this one painting is the best
Unless all those fanny-pack-wearing tourists queuing up at the Louvre are secretly massive art history buffs, there’s something funny going on here. Why do we invest so much time and money to go stroke our chins in thoughtful contemplation of what little of Leonardo’s brushwork we can see behind the sea of screens and bulletproof glass, while completely ignoring many empty galleries of equally fine paintings?
If our motive is to appreciate art, this is a real head-scratcher. But if our (hidden) motive is to signal that we are the kind of person who Appreciates Art, it makes perfect sense. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to study art history, so we’ve settled upon a clearly agreed shortcut that the Mona Lisa is Very Good Art. Go and see it, snap a picture for proof, and everyone can see how cultured and sophisticated and well-traveled you are.
Now, imagine we designed an AI that was immune to social contagion, and could evaluate and rate human art in some perfectly objective fashion. After performing the many inscrutable calculations required to follow steps 1 through 4 above, it announced that the best artwork in human history was a painting known as… The Mona Lisa, by one Leonardo Da Vinci.
All those fanny-pack-wearers would be feeling pretty damn righteous. Boy, would I have egg on my face!
… or perhaps not. As Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler point out in their excellent new book The Elephant in the Brain, even in this scenario, we should still be suspicious of the claim that people visit the Mona Lisa to bask in its unparalleled magnificence.
In fact, we know this isn’t the case, because you can see a thousand pictures of it online right now, for free, in a split second. If we only cared about its intrinsic merits, there should be museums filled with perfect replicas, indistinguishable from the real thing, in every city. If you wanted to unlock the secrets of that inscrutable smile, you wouldn’t have to pay a dime, or queue up, or brave the jostling elbows and body odor.
The only explanation that fits is the most awkward one. We don’t really want to see the Mona Lisa… we want to be seen seeing the Mona Lisa.
[Not] Everything Popular is Wrong
The Matthew Effect predicts that a ton of popular stuff must be massively overrated, because it rose to the top largely through blind chance and arbitrary contagion. It’s tempting to start assuming, as Oscar Wilde put it, that “everything popular is wrong”.
It’s true that a lot of things are basically the aesthetic equivalent of herpes: a Louis Vuitton handbag is obviously not 20 times better than a no-brand bag of the same quality. The price premium has nothing to do with intrinsic merit, and everything to do with signaling.
But it never pays to go full contrarian. The Matthew Effect is not an argument against merit: some products/people/experiences rise to the top because they really are better, and a few might even be head-and-shoulders above the pack. Yes, the Mona Lisa is a ‘brand name’ experience. So is Paris. So is travel in general. That doesn’t necessarily mean they suck; it just means you have to think a bit more carefully about whether they’re worth paying the premium for. To peel the pith off the Wilde quote: most, but not everything, popular is wrong.
The happy corollary to all of this is that there must also be a ton of stuff out there which is massively underrated, and might well be, say, 95 per cent as good for a fraction of the price/time invested.
Underrated things don’t just provide better bang for buck: they might also give you a subjectively better experience than the top tier, even if they’re (objectively) not quite as good. Having ploughed through a lot of the research on happiness and money in recent months, one of the main things that jumped out at me is that expectations are everything.
Expectations vs Reality
New Zealand is not exactly a well-kept secret (except to the people who make world maps, apparently). Tourism is our number one industry. We shamelessly give Hollywood massive subsidies so they keep using our scenic backdrops in their blockbusters. We have heaps of glossy brochures. And so, when my friend visited, she was already expecting nothing short of breathtaking mountainous vistas and glistening glaciers and hairy hobbits.
If you go somewhere at the height of hype, you’re already expecting the very best. The only way to go is down. If reality fails to match up to your expectations, even in some trivial way, woe betide you. But if you go into something with low or no expectations, there’s massive potential upside.
This is because of the weird way humans are wired. Absolute conditions don’t really move the needle. It’s all relative, which leads to some paradoxical situations: If you go to a fancy-ass restaurant that your friend raved about, and then it doesn’t quite live up to the hype, you’ll get less satisfaction than if you’d stumbled across a random hole-in-the-wall, expected nothing in particular from the modest menu, and were pleasantly surprised—even if, strictly speaking, the first meal was better than the second.
Special Snowflakes Have More Fun
The second thing to know is that not all experiences were created equal. The research4 suggests you’re likely to get the most bang for your buck if you do something that:
- Brings you together with other people
- Makes a memorable story that you’ll enjoy retelling
- Is tightly linked to your sense of identity—who you are, or want to be
- Is unique, and therefore hard to compare against other options
There’s no reason a brand-name experience can’t meet the first and second criteria. It might meet the third criterion too, but you have to be careful: if you’re pressured into going to a sports game where you’re not invested in the outcome, or a trendy movie you suspect you won’t like even though everyone insists it’s mandatory viewing, you’re more likely to feel guilty or resentful than overjoyed.
The fourth criterion is where brand-name experiences lose their lustre. In this respect, they behave more like commodities: yeah, you nailed the classic ‘holding up the Leaning Tower’ photo during the 30 minute stop on your generic package tour, but so did a billion other people.
The whole point of buying experiences is that they defy easy comparison. Unlike a phone or a car, you can’t feel deflated when your friend pulls up in a newer model. The more unique your experience is, the harder it is to compare—not just with your peers, but against all the other options you could have chosen.
Escaping the Asylum
‘People Looking at Devices’ (number 1 in a series of ten million)
#wanderlust #travelgram #exploretocreate #passionpassport #adventuretime #travelstoke #traveldeeper #discoverearth #exploremore #globetrotter #instatraveling #oncechance #chooselife #followyourbliss etc etc
Please note that I am as guilty of this sort of thing as anyone. I love showing off my (carefully curated) life on Instagram. But I’m trying to keep it to the bare minimum required to satisfy my thirst for external validation, and actually just enjoy myself the rest of the time.
If you live primarily for the admiration of others, maybe you’ll endure a million selfie-sticks and prodding elbows and pay through the nose so you can harvest those sweet, sweet likes down at the ol’ content farm. And if that brings you lasting satisfaction, all I can say is congratulations…but I’m not sure I believe you.
I wish I was an enlightened being who had risen above petty signaling for social status. But I’m not. Neither are you. Neither is the Dalai Lama, or Oprah, or [Insert Spiritual/Woke Person of Choice]. You can’t transcend your biology any more than you can decide to disregard the law of gravity and start strolling around on the ceiling. Like it or not, this thing is baked into us.
For example: the hidden motive for this post is probably to signal what an edgy contrarian thinker I am (unlike all those other sheeple). The point of that last sentence was to signal how honest and self-deprecating I am. That last one was to show off how clever I am at coming up with nested abstractions. And so on. It’s signals all the way down, baby!
Of course, there are better and worse signals to send. The first step is self-awareness. I’ve started playing a little game, which goes like this: If I was never allowed to tell anyone about a certain experience, or post it up on Instagram—if it went with me to the grave— would I still choose to spend my time in the same way?
Are the online popularity points and signaling opportunities merely a happy added bonus—the icing on top of an intrinsically delicious cake? Or, if I’m brutally, embarrassingly, painfully, honest with myself…. are they the main point of the exercise? It’s a question worth asking; the answer may shock and surprise you.
- According to Wikipedia: Australia, England (Cornwall, Surrey, Yorkshire), United States, New Zealand, Kerala state and Kanyakumari district (India), Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all claim to be God’s favourite place. Hmm.
- This is, of course, a reference to skiing.
- The Matthew Effect is such an eerie and underappreciated phenomenon that I’ll write a proper post on it soon. For now, just think of it as compound interest, but for pretty much everything in the universe.
- Check out Happy Money (recommended below) for a handy overview.
The public library will loan you these books for free. If you’d rather buy them, use the links below to send a few pennies to support this site, at no extra cost to you (read more here).
How to Travel Long Term: Tips and Tricks From a Tight-Arse — Kristin Hall
Wickedly funny, with lots of practical advice. I only quoted a little bit above; be sure to read the whole thing if you’re interested in budget travel.
Stumbling on Happiness — Dan Gilbert
For some reason every book in this genre has a cringe-y title, but this is not your typical self-help fluff. Gilbert is a Harvard psychology professor best known for his research on ‘affective forecasting’, i.e., how come we’re so hopeless at anticipating what will make us happy. This book contains the best explanation I’ve come across for why humans are so sensitive to change rather than absolutes, why our memories are so unreliable, how to combat hedonic adaptation, and a host of other fascinating bits and pieces. Unlike most books written by scientists, it’s also a lot of fun to read.
Happy Money — Elizabeth Dunn
Again, cutesy title, great book. Dunn summaries the research on how to spend money in order to maximise happiness, which boils down to five principles: buy experiences, make it a treat, buy time, pay now but consume later, and invest in others. These are fleshed out with amusing anecdotes and pop culture references, which makes it another fun read.
The Elephant in The Brain — Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler
For those with a contrarian bent, reading Hanson and co is like the sweetest crack cocaine. The Elephant in The Brain would have easily made the quake books list if I hadn’t already been following the GMU crowd for quite a while, but I still picked up a lot of new stuff. Kevin Simler (of Melting Asphalt) is a brilliant essayist, and has really brought the prose to life. The signaling model explains all sorts of otherwise mystifying incongruities in art, education, love, money, politics and religion. This is the best book I’ve read so far this year. Go pick up a copy right now.
I’ve been a reader of yours for a while (and living a similar-ish lifestyle), but somehow I missed this article. I enjoy your style of writing a lot, and this is one of your best articles in my opinion. I agree with pretty much all of it and will be sharing it as required reading! 🙂
Hey Ian, just spotted your comment – thanks, I appreciate it. As it happens, this was one of my favourite articles to write!
I thoroughly enjoyed Paris, but I think I saw the Mona Lisa just to say I’ve seen it. The thing that struck me the most was the painting opposite-magnificent in it’s size, the largest painting I’ve ever seen! I wonder if a curator placed it there for the juxtaposition, and it was odd to see how few were looking at the monstrosity, only wanted a pic with Mona.
Thanks for making my brain work today.
What was the other piece? I like the idea of this monstrously large painting, forever obscured by the shadow of its tiny but more illustrious room-mate!
Hi Rich This is a really interesting topic – thanks! This is an area I struggle with in the mustachian ethos. I agree – the Mona Lisa is one of the most disappointing “must see” things ever – it is soooo small and behind bullet proof glass which obscured it when i saw it. BUT I am still glad I saw it – those eyes do really follow you in a weird way.
I have loved all the “top tier” things I have seen and sometimes argued against my more alternative companions to skip them. Things I have bowed to pressure and missed still haunt me. They are crowded and, if you hate crowds, unpleasant, but these things are famous for a reason. I think each to their own. Some people have no interest in art or churches or etc and should not feel obliged to see them just because everyone else does. But, on the other hand don’t assume everyone is doing it to follow the herd. I spent three days at the Louvre and could see it again. I did the Macchu Picchu trail at 5 mths pregnant because the opportunity arose… I desperately want to see the pyramids before they disappear – love, love the British Museum and spent countless hours there when I lived in London. I have studied greek and roman history at uni level – loved Rome and Athens
I love culture in all its forms not just because it is “the thing to do”. My European backpacker’s journey included me going to the opera in Vienna (4 euros to stand), the Hungarian Ballet in Budapest 4mths after the fall of communism – best seat in the house and maybe the only foreigner – definitely the only backpacker), The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, etc.
Hi Aisling, thanks a lot for the thoughtful comment! It’s interesting that your experience is the exact opposite to mine (“I have loved all the top tier things I have seen”) which suggests this is at least partly my own preferences talking. On the other hand, if the top-tier things you’ve done line up with your genuine areas of interest (e.g. Greek and Roman history) then maybe it gives you more of an authentic/intrinsically pleasing experience, as compared to the vast hordes of people like me whose only experience of culture has hitherto come from a yogurt pottle.
I agree with you that some things are famous for a reason, and might even be ‘the best’…it’s just a matter of figuring out a) whether they’re worth it on a value-for-money/time basis, and b) whether they’re an attempt to buy status, or intrinsically rewarding.
In a world with unlimited resources this wouldn’t matter a damn- you’d just do the best thing regardless – but most of us have limited time and money to allocate and should optimise accordingly. From what you’ve said, the sort of experiences you’ve bought have passed both the tests above, and have absolutely been worthwhile, so congratulations!
Another great article, very pleased I found your website.
I need not have worried then that I’d set your expectations too high for “The Elephant in the Brain.”
Nope, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I remember telling you I wasn’t crazy about ev psych because of all the cute just-so stories, but lately I’ve been warming up to it (still suspicious, but clearly there are some massively important insights in there too).
It’s possible that it’s about social status signalling whatnots, but I think that that misses most of the picture. If everyone does something, it cannot possibly be about status: status is exclusive, like an Ivy degree or a supercar or the right belief system. That crowd around the pond is one of the least exclusive things I’ve ever seen. I think the truth of the situation is actually far more insidious than you give it credit for: it’s really about conformity, which is driven by fear, fear of coloring outside the lines.
Don’t look at the photo in isolation; look at it in the context of seven billion people. If everyone could just wander out their front door and visit Angkor Wat, then it would have no signaling power. In the same fashion, a photo of Ivy League graduates all crowded together doesn’t reduce their status in the world at large, because 99.9% of the population does not have a $400,000 piece of sheepskin. You’re right that this sort of conspicuous signaling naturally leads to conformity; Ivy League educations and supercars are just as worthy of suspicion as ‘must-do’ attractions.