The True Believer

Eric Hoffer wrote in the 1940s about the mass movements such as the rise of the Bolshevists, the Fascists and the Nazis, but he seemed to be describing the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Arab Spring, and the current populist movements such as Brexit.

Demonstration in Tunisia
We may say that he was a prophet, but more accurately, he had isolated the ingredients that make up mass movements. He understood that mixing discontent for the present and hope for the future breeds a desire for change. He understood that a person plunges into a mass movement to dissolve his/her hated self and to replace it with a grand and almost immortal collective self. He understood the psychology of those who would tend to become followers, as well as those who would seize the chance to lead the movements. He discovered the phases of mass movements and the types of individuals who would lead, from the intellectuals to the fanatics to the pragmatists. He discovered self-sacrifice and unifying actions as the key ingredients to sustaining and advancing mass movements.


 Hoffer’s The True Believer is required reading for our age, when populist movements dominate the global arena. It will give us insights into the who, what and how of these mass movements, insights that would help us navigate through our times.

Thinking Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, reveals many of the fallacies in our thinking, whether we are ordinary men and women or scientists, statisticians and policy makers. He partitions the thinking self into two entities with the generic names System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the intuitive part of our thinking self: the part that after training executes skills spontaneously; the part that generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations, which when endorsed by System 2 become beliefs, attitudes, and intentions. System 2 is the analytical part, which checks System 2 through critical analysis but which is often too lazy to act.

 Decision Tree

Whenever System 2 fails to check System 1, there is likely to be errors in our judgment, decisions, and thinking. Kahneman, through his research throughout the years with colleagues, discovered these thinking errors including heuristic and biases such as putting too much emphases on low probability events, being influenced by how a statement or question is framed, giving more weights (in terms of probabilities) to incidences that we are familiar with or that are dramatic, ignoring base rates and focusing only on the representative features of event or person to decide probabilities. Other fallacies are overconfidence through the illusion of understanding, where through hindsight we create artificial items for success (successful companies, CEOs, startups, etc); through the illusion of validity where the environment is so “noisy” that practitioners have difficulty mastering the skill (stock picking); through neglecting the outside view (the base rate) and only focusing on what is in front of us. Also, we make bad decisions because we are not the rational individuals that utility theory, decision theory, and other economic theories presupposes (we don’t maximize expected utilities because emotions such as fear from System 1 interferes).

Normal Distribution
In general, System 1 is useful in our day-to-day lives since the shortcuts that we have developed over our lifetimes saves time and mental energy. However, at key moments, we must recognize that these shortcuts will harm rather than help us. By pointing out these fallacies, by turning these “unknown unknowns” into “known unknowns” Kahneman has alerted us to the tendencies for us to prejudge, to under-plan, to ignore the bird’s eye view, to select the wrong path, etc. Now that we are aware of the danger, we must design formal structures or informal alarms to guard against these fallacies. Since they affect personal finance, individual happiness, as well as national policies and international economics, we can’t afford to avoid them. Overcoming these fallacies will improve our individual, national, and global wellbeing. 

Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny

Dachau Concentration Camp

In On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder draws lessons from Nazi Germany and Stalin’s and Putin’s Russia to guard against the tactics of totalitarian regimes. These regimes have similar maneuvers to maintain their grip on their people. Of particular interests are examples of Putin’s government trying to sow discord in France, Germany, the Ukraine, and the US through fake news in social media as well as traditional ones. 

Joseph Stalin