22: Strong Ties vs. Weak Ties in the Next Era of Brand Innovation

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin

What happens when the world suddenly reconfigures itself around a very different kind of relationship? The last 20 years of social innovation has leaned into weak ties: distant social relationships that allowed us to trust and extract value on platforms like Yelp, LinkedIn and Facebook. But the next 20 years are already shaping up to look very different. Strong social ties, our close-knit relationships with frequent interactions, are starting to emerge as the dominant threads of the social fabric. In this new era of increased intimacy with our immediate network, what we value and what we create move in a markedly new direction. We co-buy homes with friends, form politically aligned living communities, go deep into conversational chambers and band together in vision-led DAOs. The way we relate to one another is more profound, but also more narrow. What we demand of our network communities, and the brand landscape in general, becomes more high stakes. In this house episode, we’re talking to Concept Bureau’s Chief Strategist Jean-Louis Rawlence, about the huge implications for tech innovation, community building and business. When strong ties become the future of community, community becomes the new brand.

Podcast Transcript

MAY 24, 2022

23 min read



Welcome to Unseen Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina.


The town of Grafton, New Hampshire, has a problem with bears.


Audio Clip:
Well, despite the snow today, spring is here, and the black bears are beginning to wake up.


Grafton has been overrun by bears not once, but twice in the past 10 years, and bear invasions continue to be a major issue to this day.


Audio Clip:
Melissa Champney’s husband woke her up in the middle of the night over the weekend. An unwanted guest had made his way into their mud room and was unable to get out. He kept saying, “There’s a giant bear. Do not let that bear in the house.”


The people that live in this small town have dealt with more than just destroyed property. They’ve lost pets. They’ve suffered actual bear attacks and have somehow fostered a population of bears that is incredibly bold, often hanging out on porches in broad daylight.


Audio Clip:
He tore off all of the sheetrock, all of the insulation. He tore down screens. He did a lot of damage.


From the outside, Grafton looks like a sleepy town with some curious wildlife; but not long ago, this sleepy town was the promise of paradise for over 20,000 Americans who pledged to move there and create a utopia of sorts for people that share the same political, social and moral values, and somehow that paradise has turned into black bear hell.


The chain of events that brought this particular bear crashing into this couple’s mudroom, however, is a signal of something much bigger that’s been looming on our cultural horizon, weak social ties being replaced with strong social ties and the technologies that are fueling the next wave of innovation.


In this house episode of Unseen Unknown, I’m talking again to Jean-Louis Rawlence, my co-founder at Concept Bureau, about the decline of weak ties and the ascent of strong ties, how strong ties are the future of community and how community is the new brand. I promise we’ll get back to the bears in a second, but let’s start our conversation with something equally curious. What are strong ties, and why after a decade of exploiting weak ties are we moving in this new direction?


In order to understand the era of strong ties, we first have to understand the era of weak ties, which is really the last 20 years of innovation. If you look at who are the winners in the last 20 years, it was the networks. We had so many platforms that captured value from weak-tie networks, so some examples of this.


Before the era of Yelp and before the era of online reviews, you would need to find an expert. You need to find a travel expert or a blogger, someone you could trust who would tell you how to navigate a city, for example. When these platforms came about, what happened is, for the first time really ever, we trusted strangers en masse. We trusted weak ties we had very loose connections with to tell us this is the best place to go for breakfast. On LinkedIn, these weak-tie connections, connections that we don’t really have any mutual connections with, people with hundreds of connections, they were able to leverage that value when they needed to get a new job and actually capture and extract a ton of value from a weak-tie network.


We see this with Facebook Marketplace, with all just so many different social networks. We see us extracting value in new ways even in dating sites, these loose connections, things that tie you together very loosely. Really the last 20 years, we extracted value from weak ties. I think, to borrow the analogy here, this term, strong tie and weak tie, actually came out of a linguistic study. It was a really interesting story, actually. They did a study about how language changes. What are the causes of language?



I think it was that the Milroy and Milroy study in Belfast, and what they found was that weak ties bring more change. They bring more information almost inherently. You have many, many weak ties. You have a lot more information in the system, and so things can change faster, but what they found is that it was the deep ties that cemented that change and made it really stick, and so, in a network that had many deep ties, you introduced a lot of new terminology. The network would adopt one of these new terms as a new piece of language. What’s interesting in this study is, if you have a mix of strong ties and weak ties socially, what happens is you end up with one dominant term, but then that changes, and you end up with a new dominant term, and so, over time, there’s a bit of an evolution as there’s a mix of information coming in and change that’s happening.



The last 20 years really was just us codifying and extracting value out of our weak ties, and I think especially anyone, everyone going through the pandemic, we realized that weak ties leave a lot to be desired, and really it was our strong ties that would keep us company through that experience. That created a lot of value for us, and so my hypothesis here as we move into the era of strong ties is we’re about to see a lot of new innovation happen with our closer connections with our family, with our close friends in smaller communities, and this is really where the next generation, the next 10, 20 years of innovation of capital creation, capital and value capture is really going to take place, and so a very, very different dynamic that is going to unfold here because, in a weak-tie network, what did you have? You had information. You had speed. You had change that was very, very fast and rapid, but in a strong tie era, you’ve got a depth of change.



I think that’s what’s really interesting. We’ve seen so much rapid change, and so I really think that where we’re moving to is a fascinating place where we’re just going to see a lot of much deeper social change and innovation and cultural change on the back of new technologies.


I think we understand what a weak tie is, but, a strong tie, it’s got to be more than just people you know, better. It can’t just be like your family and friends. What is the nature of a strong tie?


It’s really someone who’s just embedded in your network. There is an influence factor when you have a friend or a family member that is part of your social circle that you connect with frequently and you have a lot of mutual connections. They’re really part of that much tighter sphere of influence. You might be exposed to a new language through someone that you don’t know who’s shared something viral on social media, but it’s really the people that you know that you codify that new language where that’s when you start using that new language and embedding that in your identity, and so I think that it’s that distinction between information coming in and change happening within.


You’re not just talking about language here. You’re talking about overall behaviors. Is that right?


Yeah. I think the implications of innovation that’s going to get much more intimate in a lot of ways are going to be pretty profound. When you think about change, yeah, language is the most tangible, but I think we’re going to see a lot of social and cultural change especially.


Let’s get into it then. What are some examples of places where we’re seeing innovation in strong ties versus weak ties?


Yeah. I think the implications of innovation that’s going to get much more intimate in a lot of ways are One of the most obvious stories here is the story of crypto. If you look at DAOs, decentralized autonomous organizations, really what you have here, the fundamental technology, is essentially almost like a community management infrastructure with a lot of trust baked in. You can trust that you can have multiple people co-invested in the same cause, the same project.


In a much more tight-knit, intimate community, you can affect change, so a really interesting example of this. There was a comic book project someone made based on one of these crypto punks. They made a comic book, and this is a piece of cultural collateral that is owned by a community, and so it’s not of a stretch of the imagination to imagine a world we’re headed to where, Marvel, you can actually have a stake. In Thor, for example, you can have a part ownership in those characters, and you now have a tight-knit community of fans that are financially invested in this, that have a unique language, that have a unique culture and community, but they have aligned incentives. They care about this character and they want to see it leveraged in pop culture, in movies and TV.


That’s just one really interesting example, but I think there are some ones that are much closer to home. If you look at the creator economy and the passion economy, what does that look like? We’re moving to a membership model. There’s an interesting analogy, as I was thinking about this thesis here, is that, for a long time, we’ve been told find your passion, and the economic model has been you find your passion, you sell that story on social media, whether it’s YouTube or Instagram, wherever, and you get followers, you amass cultural capital through that, and you hope to turn that often through advertising into revenue, but, now, you’re finding a much smaller group of fans, and you’re building communities around these passions, and so really maybe the adage of the era of strong ties, instead of find your passion, we’re moving to an era where it’s find your people.


Yeah, so this makes me think of platforms like Patreon, places like that. Is this what you’re talking about?


Exactly. They’re really becoming community management platforms. There’s a new kind of relationship that’s starting to emerge. Sure, they’re centered around one individual, but really these are people who all enjoy whatever kind of niche or vertical that is. They’re there for the love of that thing, and so I think this is really the beginning of a strong-tie infrastructure, these micro communities which are deeply interwoven. There’s this unique language that emerges out of these much tighter networks of people. Again, the point here and the value isn’t to have large networks, almost the value comes out of having small, much more intimate networks.


It makes me think of Li Jin’s whole thesis around the creator economy where you used to need a thousand people who’d be paying $10 for your service or entertainment or a content or whatever it is. Now, it’s a matter of getting a hundred people that would pay a thousand dollars each. I think that that maybe shows the contrast between the first model is more of like a weak-tie model and the second model is more of a strong-tie model. It’s interesting because the business model here implicates the social model as well.


Absolutely. The era of weak ties was an attention model. It was built around advertising, and it looks like where we’re going is the era of strong ties as a membership model. It’s very much about having that community. When you change the economic incentives, I think you’d change all of the dynamics.


Right. Those are obvious examples. Where else do you see strong ties cementing in our culture?


I think there’s one area which is fascinating. Not many people think about this, but a shareholder should have the ability to vote on what the company does, but I think something like 30% of the S&P is owned by either ETFs or index mutual funds, and so the point is that you’ve got a ton of capital with no means to actually influence these companies, but that’s starting to change. There’s a really fascinating company, Engine No. 1, and what they’re trying to do is get their shareholders to vote on what the company should do. A lot of this seems to focus on environmental action, and actually, Engine No. 1, this fund, managed to get a few dissident board members who are going to push much more environmental action into the board of ExxonMobil. They’re actually affecting this change, and they’re starting a new precedent.


Actually, the SEC has the proposal out right now where they’re going to standardize the voting required for the companies. We’re into the proxy season now, which is when you have a lot of these shareholder voting events that happen and these talks of what the company should vote on. Again, this is something that retail investors have been far removed from, but we’re going to start to see infrastructure here, and so shareholders and activist shareholders that we’re starting to hear more and more stories around hedge funds that are really pushing specific agendas in their investments, I think we’re going to see a lot of infrastructure in capital as well in terms of acting more and more like communities.


I mean, could you imagine an investment horizon where your shareholders act like a community? I think it’s a very different proposition. You may invest in a company you don’t like because you want to change its course. It’s not necessarily a financial thing, but it’s a social obligation there. I think the impact of strong-tie infrastructure, we don’t know just like we really didn’t know what was happening at the beginning of social media the scale of change. Again, I think we’re on a whole different territory now.


You bring up an interesting point, too, because that highlights the fact that strong ties aren’t just going to be showing up in new spaces in net new innovations, but places where you currently see weak ties maybe transitioning into strong tie frameworks instead. What are some of the signals that you’re seeing? Yes, there are examples of deep-tie networks and infrastructures forming, but what are some of the whole canary-in-the-coal-mine signals that might tell us that this is bigger than just some isolated incidences?


Yeah, I think there’s so many signals, and that’s what’s interesting here is it really does feel like everything is telling us this is where we’re headed. If you look at gaming, gaming has always been on the leading edge of cultural change. You see so many behaviors that played out in gaming, and then they played out in social media later on. You can really look at that as an early indicator industry. That’s a huge industry, too.


I remember, I think it was early 2000s. World of Warcraft came out, and I was part of a guild, and it felt really cool to be part of the small community that would do raids and hang out together. I had my character’s name on their website, and it felt really cool. I really think this is the kind of world that we’re headed to where we’re part of a lot of small, tight-knit branded communities.


One interesting thing here that’s connected to this is that you’ve got a lot of top talent from large companies leaving some of the best-paid jobs out there. The CFO of Lyft, some VPs from Google leave these companies to join crypto companies, to join DAOs, and that’s why I think what’s a really interesting benchmark here is that you’ve got top talent leaving to join essentially what look and feel like communities, but the difference is here is that these are communities where, yes, there’s an element of profit sharing, but there’s also an element of control. These are people who can control the destiny of these companies not just because they’re in senior positions, but because they actually have ownership stakes. Again, the DAO is providing a new infrastructure for them actually being able to vote on how this new kind of organization arranges itself and moves forward.


A lot of these big tech companies are really starting to sweat here because these communities are becoming a really powerful draw for top talent. If that’s the case now, fast forwarding 10, 20 years, that might be the new benchmark of the kind of companies people want to belong to, companies where they have a great sense of ownership and control of where the company goes and a larger percentage of the remuneration of the company. Now, that creates tension against the old guard, traditional companies with the traditional compensation models, and the new guards of crypto companies doing a lot of these things, so I don’t think we can underestimate how strong of effect this driver of being part of a community being part of a strong time network is.


Another area that we’re seeing is in, it’s an interesting signal, but I would not underestimate it, is co-buying, which is when two people or two or more people, a group of friends, let’s say, buy a house together, whether that’s two single parents helping co-parent each other’s kids or a group of friends just getting into the property ladder and, essentially, the roommates, but they own the home.


In the era of strong ties, one of the things that you have in a small community is far more trust and, with a lot of trust, you can start to do different kinds of innovation. Just like the era of weak ties had a lot of information innovation, I think what we might see in the era of strong ties is more financial innovation. The 30-year mortgage really became popularized in the early 1950s, and it came to define the American city as we know it today. The American suburb, just life as we know it, the freeways, all of that infrastructure was built around the single family home which was really a product of the 30-year mortgage of people being able to afford and buy and incentivized in the construction of single family homes.


In this new era, it was fascinating if we saw that much disruption with the 30-year mortgage. What does the new mortgage instrument look like for housing in the era of strong ties? I think it’s quite possible we’ll get something and, potentially, fast forwarding many, many years from now, we may see a similar order of magnitude impact based on this new infrastructure. I really don’t think you can underestimate how significant the long tail impacts of these financial instruments could be.


I think these are all amazing examples that lead to something much bigger, and it’s something that we talk about at our agency when we’re doing futurism sessions or trying to do brand strategy. You bring up this phrase to the team all the time. Community is the new brand. What do you really mean by that, because community has always been a big part of brand, but when you say community is the new brand, what’s the step change that’s happening here?


I think we’re setting a new benchmark on how people navigate the world and navigate brands. We’ve been in a predominantly advertising model for brand for a long time, which is really an awareness issue, but now I think awareness is becoming maybe more commoditized and what we need instead is engagement. We need connection. There’s too much information to filter, and so communities are the benchmark of whether we can trust something.


I think there’s so many things that are going on. There’s a lot of precedent right now of brands creating and leveraging communities and creating tremendous value in doing so. Airbnb’s host community is a perfect case study of how they’ve created a community that has developed so much retention, so much evangelism and really, in effect, massively increased the lifetime value of the hosts on their platform.


We’re going to start to see that communities are really how you generate and solidify value. The challenge there is that the rules of building a community are very, very different from the rules of building an audience base or a customer base, and so there’s really new almost supply chains that companies need to build inside of themselves, new skills that we don’t have an awful lot of maturity for.


Again, with crypto companies, what’s really interesting is that it’s almost a community first proposition, value prop second in terms of actually how they capture value, and so these are companies, these are organizations that are generating a lot of expertise and really building the playbook on how to build effective communities. I think, as a lot of legacy companies like to call it, they’re going to have to start following those playbooks to build that because that’s really how you generate value out of your audience. It’s no longer attracting people in. It’s building lifetime value, building retention, engagement, loyalty, advocacy, and I think that’s where it gets really interesting.


Before we get into the rules of building this new kind of community, because I think that’s the most important part, I just want to highlight again for all the brand new listeners listening, your community is your new trust signal. What you’re saying here is it’s not enough to have a Facebook group. It’s not enough to have a place where people can chat or a board where people can gather. It’s the depths and strength of the ties in that community and the culture of the community that you’ve created that tell people whether they can trust your brand or not. That’s a wildly different signal than the signals we’ve seen in the past.


Yeah. A lot of this comes down to exactly what you’re saying. It’s trust and authenticity. Your brand tells people this is the world that we’re building. Well, now you need a community to prove that that’s actually what you are doing, because it’s so easy to manufacture the message and tell people that this is what we’re doing without actually doing that. Customers are getting far more sensitive, and how do you filter the noise? Again, it comes down to community.


Having a platform with a lot of people on it is not a community. LinkedIn is not a community.




What are some of the rules now for creating what this new kind of community looks like?


I think part of it is you need to platform a conversation, and platform is an important thing. To platform a conversation means you are posing the question, but you are letting your community have the dialogue. In effect, what you have to do is give up a bit of ownership. Instead of telling, you have to listen and you have to answer the questions that your community has. Part of that is almost an act of co-creation. If you really zoom out, that’s what this looks like.


What you mean is like raising the voices of others.


It’s not about you anymore. It’s about the value that you generate, and a lot of that comes from the world that you’re building. You want people to authentically be aligned with that value, and that’s really where they start to drive identity from. Again, coming back to that notion of find your people, not your passion, a lot of that is how do you find your identity? In the find-your-passion world, your performing identity. Now, it’s the proof of that identity is in the people that you spend time with, and so you need to have that authentic passion and that value generation that really creates a sense of identity for a specific community.


Doesn’t this mean though that you have to be willing to let conversations get pretty deep or to have more of a dialogue with your audience, really be able to listen and just commit so many more resources to what community building is? It just feels risky. What would you say to people who feel that when you describe this?


Sure. So, the dawn of cultish new religions in the US, which is around the 70’s, really corresponds to tWell, I mean another word for that is vulnerability, and I think that’s really what it is. There’s an intimacy that people are asking of brands and of the communities and the people in those brands and the faces of those communities, and so I think that, yeah, companies have to be more vulnerable, but that’s the point is people are looking for that, and that’s the differentiating signal.


The companies that are not willing to be vulnerable cannot be authentic, and I think that’s where in a deluge where there’s too much information you look for those authentic signals, and that’s the whole point. It’s a new muscle, and I’m sure it’s making a lot of people very uncomfortable, but I really feel that this is the new benchmark for how brands are going to have to operate. This is the new driver of value in brand. It’s the community.


By definition, does this have to be kind of flat or decentralized? Is that also a factor here?


Yeah. I mean, I think there’s an element of flattening, but that’s not to say you kind of thought leaders that are adding value. I mean, you can have some sense of hierarchy. It’s really just a feeling of control and a feeling of community ownership. That’s a big part of it. It’s feeling my presence here as a consumer, as an advocate of this brand and as part of an invested community. It is valued and meaningful. I think that’s really the most important benchmark. I think, within that, you can have structures. Obviously, a lot of communities, take the creator economy, they’re built around individuals so that there is a sense of hierarchy there which I think a lot of times people are happy with. It’s really that they want to have a conversation rather than be told what’s happening, and that’s the key difference. It’s a different kind of experience.


Yeah, and as you’re talking, I’m realizing, too, that mission-driven brands will probably not be as competitive here in this future that you’re describing as vision-driven brands. What do you think of that?


Yeah. I think that we identify a version of the world that a company is creating is really what’s compelling and really what’s driving identity. It feels really good to have a positive impact in people’s lives, but a specific version of the future that you’re building, that’s what I think creates a much stronger community because there’s more of an identity and a set of values there, and so I’d say that the vision is really where you can create a lot of specificity, and strong communities have a lot of specificity.


If you had to project forward what the signals today are going to mean in five to 10 years or maybe, let’s say, even 20, what’s some of the stuff that you are envisioning on the horizon?


Just like social media and the era of weak ties created Coachella, it’s like a perfect output. Someone described it as a content festival that has music in the background. Really, that’s what people are doing. That is a perfect embodiment of what happens in the era of weak ties.


I think what we’re going to see is that these communities are going to start having physical manifestations. We’re going to see communities, like physical communities built up, and so there’s some really interesting examples of this. El Salvador has the proposed Bitcoin city, and they’re going to build an entire city built around bitcoin infrastructure as payments and for all sorts of different systems in the city and you’re not really, really leaning into decentralization. There’s actually a lot of movements, many of which have not been too successful, but a lot of movements in and around the crypto space embody it in physical places.


There are some communities I think in Honduras. Prospera is one, and really the whole point of this is to build a physical utopia is how they sell it. They’re creating special economic zones where they can operate a little bit outside of the rule sets so they don’t have a police force. They have a private security force. They don’t have a court system. They have an arbitration building, and they don’t have citizenship, but you have a membership and a social agreement that you have to sign. There’s going to be a lot of experimentation until we figure out how to do this right, but I think it’s going to be very, very interesting.


There’s a brilliant article in The Atlantic recently, Why the Last 10 years of the US Have Been Uniquely Stupid and, in that, Jonathan Haidt talks about how social media has diminished trust in a lot of institutions. You’re no longer allowed to speak out in dissent of something because your own side may come after you, and so I think what’s interesting here is that the offshoot of that is you’ve got lots of disenfranchised groups, these niche communities, and more and more we’re seeing that with social media with the algorithm funneling people to smaller and smaller communities where they all believe in a certain version of the truth and it’s different from another community over there.


These communities are buying up land, oftentimes, in Latin America and trying to build these communities. They’re trying to codify these digital communities as physical communities, and I think really we’re going to see a lot of that to come. Nomadland is a great example of how people are starting to think differently about how they live. I really think that the convergence of community, communal living and crypto infrastructure, there’s just a lot of values that overlap and a lot of opportunity there. I think we’re going to see a lot of disruption.


What’s Nomadland?


The movie telling the story of a lot of people who can’t afford to retire in homes.


Oh, right, yes.


They live in, essentially, communities in camper vans, but the point here is that the traditional model of retiring in your home that you’ve paid off I think is going to wane, and we’re going to start to see something very new and very different emerge out of that.


Yeah. That’s another point there. We need innovations in the strong-tie arena to emerge because there are parts of our everyday lives like retirement that are literally failing. So, of course, there’d be a need for innovation there. Tell me more about these communities and community living.


Yeah. There’s a really funny story that I think serves as a good reminder. In any new area of innovation, it takes a while to figure out how to do things well. There’s a great story of a free town in New Hampshire. A whole bunch of libertarians got together and moved into a town, and they were going to make it a libertarian utopia. It shortly got overrun by bears because everyone wanted to and do their own things. Some people would feed the bears. There was no kind of unified system of bear-proof trash storage. They didn’t build the infrastructure, and so it did not end well. Actually, it ended pretty horrifically. The bears would eat pets and attack people. Anyway, that’s a story of how not to do that, but I think that the principle remains that there are a lot of people out there who want to form these niche communities.


We’re seeing a massive rise in homeschooling. When you homeschool, you start to, it’s as a really good example of how you remove the ability to get out of your own echo chamber, and I think, especially in the metaverse, it’s going to get very poignant here of you can spend your entire week without ever meeting someone who thinks something different than you. You have the ability to do that. Now, you can order groceries. Before, you’d bump into someone the very least in these public spaces you would meet someone who might expose you to a different way of thinking, but more and more, we’re removing the need to ever bump into someone who doesn’t agree with you.


With that fractured reality, I think we’re just going to codify that in physical and digital spaces. I do think the metaverse is going to be a major force here of creating spaces that people hang out that really are built essentially around echo chambers. I mean, I think it’s going to be a really interesting question to see. Do we have a force that acts against echo chambers in the metaverse because, in our research with kids at least, the amount of time they spend gaming is really quite incredible, and so I think that the time spent around games and the social dynamics around that are really going to shape the next generation in a very meaningful way.


This is the dark side of strong ties. It seems like the brighter side of strong ties is the fact that you can actually form deeper connections and more meaningful communities. The dark side of that is those communities then can become more insulated from the rest of the world. I mean, generally, it sounds like it just could possibly breed intolerance or disconnection from other groups, I guess you could say. This is an example of the divergent systems we talked about on this podcast many times before where the incentives of a system don’t necessarily match up with the goals of a system. If you had to say, between the light side and the dark side of things, how do you think this stuff will all net out?


Well, I think there is an important biological precedent here. Dunbar’s number, from studies, it seems that when we would hunt gatherers is we would gather in tribes of about a hundred to 150, and that’s the natural limit of how many social connections we can really maintain at any one time, and so it feels like it stands to reason that maybe we are moving towards a more tribal-like society, and that’s what our natural proclivity is is we want to be in these larger tribes.


A lot of friction comes from trying to get everyone into one large tribe. Maybe that’s just not the natural disposition of being a human and so, for better or for worse, we may see that of a lot more fractured realities just because of almost a return towards our natural instincts. I think, technology has brought us away from our natural instincts and maybe, with more technology where the pendulum swings back and we return to that.


For the record, that’s not everybody’s point of view. It’s the agency, but, Jean-Louis, that’s his point of view. Okay.


Well, I think it’s an important force. At the very least, it’s really important to understand that this is a possible future. What I think is just as important here is that we’re seeing the story of communities and the story of strong ties play out in just so many disparate areas, from gaming to investing to living arrangements to entertainment to education with cohort-based learning. We didn’t quite talk about that, but that’s another huge force. Learning is really thriving around the model of cohort based learning. There’s a lot of questions about long-term retention and things like that, but it does seem that there’s a tremendous amount of value captured in creating more cohort-based learning.


Isn’t all education like that right now? Don’t you graduate with your cohort?


Well, this is in response to a lot of MOOCs and asynchronous online learning. We’re finding that just the completion rates are very, very different, and so, as far as efficacy goes, it does appear that communal-based learning is a better model. Again, we’re seeing it in so many different layers. To me, this feels like a strong signal. Obviously, when you start to project 20, 50 years out, it gets very, very fuzzy, but the general trend is there.


When does it make sense to be a community brand that is focused on creating strong ties, and when does it not make sense?


Yeah, I think that’s a really important question. With all this stuff happening, when do you make the leap? I think part of that comes down to if you want to play in culture or not, if you want to become a culturally relevant brand. For a lot of brands, it’s not worth it. Honestly, the ROI, the investment is pretty high. If you are in a maybe not as commodified space where there is just a simple value proposition with not a ton of competition, then maybe you don’t need to.


You can capture a lot of the value in the traditional models of advertising, but where we’re seeing the most competitive brand landscapes, where there’s a lot of innovation happening, where there’s a lot of change happening and, importantly, a lot of investment, investment always turns into add dollars, and so where you’re seeing floods of capital enter, you may have to play in culture in order to stay relevant and stay ahead of the curve.


I think what’s interesting here is that if we’re moving to a post-advertising economy or a model here over a very long time span, community is maybe the only thing that you have that’s truly defensible. Otherwise, you’re just buying attention, and the minute you stop paying for attention, you stop getting attention. Whereas community does have a flywheel effect. It’s a great way of generating organic engagement. It’s a great way of leveraging influence. There’s a long ROI, so when your space is getting very competitive and when it’s hard to stand out and hard to be defensible, this may be a frontier that you want to enter.


I get the sense, that good or bad, something about all this change really excites you. What’s the one thing that really gets you revved up about these signals?


Well, I mean, I think that it’s so easy to look back and not realize just how much changed and just how quickly it changed. I mean, 20 years ago, it was a wildly different experience of being a human. You could argue that technology today is an extension of being a human. I think that, if this is right, if the era of weak ties was the speed of change and the speed of information accelerated, and now in the era of strong ties, it’s the depth of change that’s going to happen. I don’t think we can underestimate just how much change is coming. I think that, as someone who enjoys the future, I find that tremendously exciting one way or another.


Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Unseen Unknown. If you’re new here and like what you’re listening to, leave us a review. You can always get more of our brand strategy and culture articles, videos and podcasts at our agency website, While you’re there, you can also sign up for our awesome newsletter. I promise it will be one of your favorite emails to receive. Thanks for really listening and we’ll catch you next time.

Interesting Links & More Reading


21: The Secret Language of Cult Brands

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin

Cults make effective brands, and today, they’re all around us. We engage with them on some level every day, and cult experiences have come to define so much of who we are as a society that you have to ask, how did we get here? Perhaps the most insidious way cults have influenced the world around us is in everyday language that’s meant to control behaviors and change perspectives. It’s language we use with friends and colleagues, language in our media and content, and language we hear coming from today’s most powerful CEOs, on branded websites and in keynote addresses. In this episode we’re talking with Amanda Montell, a language scholar and author of the critically acclaimed book, ‘Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism’ to understand why cults have had a resurgence in branding and in real life. You’d be surprised to know that some of the successful brands of our time were either founded by, owned by, or closely tied to cults. There’s a very good chance that some influencer you’re following has at least borrowed from cult culture or knowingly created a radicalized cult around themselves. There are the cults we joke about like SoulCycle or Supreme, but they use the same dynamics and tools as the cults we like to gasp at in documentaries. Cults and businesses have always been intertwined, and understanding how they use the power of language to move people is the first step to decoding how they work.

Podcast Transcript

NOVEMBER 8, 2021

87 min read



Welcome to Unseen Unknown, I’m Jasmine Bina. Let’s start this episode by listening to an audio clip. You’re going to hear a woman talking about leaving a group. And I want you to see if you can tell just by listening to the way she describes her experience, what kind of a group she’s left.  


Audio Clip:
Immediately within 15 minutes, I got a text message from my sponsor, “How dare you do this to me? How dare you leave without telling me,” I said, “Oh, I didn’t know this was about you. All right. Cool.” So, that friendship is gone, ruined it’s heartbreaking. And then it happened with another person, someone that I thought actually cared about me. The more I spoke out, the more I shared my story, the more friends unfriended me. It’s just, it’s mind games. It’s cult mind games.


This clip comes from a 2019 Vice documentary called Why Women Are Quitting Their Side Hustle: Leaving LuLaRoe. The woman in this clip isn’t talking about leaving a cult, she’s talking about leaving a business. LuLaRoe is a multi-level marketing company, MLM for short, that puts women in pyramid schemes to sell leggings and clothes and recruit other sellers beneath them much like Amway or Avon. And she’s a great reminder that cults and businesses have always been intertwined. Yogi Tea, The Washington Times, Newsweek, Celestial Seasonings, even Hobby Lobby are all successful brands that were either founded by, owned by or closely tied to cults. There’s a very good chance that some influencer you’re following right now has at least borrowed from cult culture or knowingly created a radical ice cult around themselves. There are the cults we like to joke about like Soul Cycle or Supreme, but they use the same dynamics and tools as the cults we like to gasp at in documentaries. 


 Perhaps the most insidious way cults have influenced the world around us is in everyday language that’s meant to control behaviors and change perspectives. Language we use with friends and colleagues, language in our media and our content and language we hear coming from today’s most powerful CEOs on branded websites and in keynote addresses. On some level every day, we engage with the cults around us, or at least do something cultish, because Cults make really a effective brands. In this episode, we’re talking with Amanda Montell, a language scholar and author of the critically acclaimed book Cultish: The Language Of Fanaticism. Cultish language has come to define so much of who we are and where we are as a society that you have to ask, how did we get here? But I started my conversation with Amanda in a very different place with the simple question in this day and age, why won’t cults just die?


This is a trickier question that it might sound, because it depends on your definition of the word cult, which is incredibly subjective and sensational and loaded with judgments. In fact, it’s a word that many of the scholars who study new religions that I spoke to for the book don’t even use because it’s so unspecific, it’s not enough to determine the particular dangers that are on the table with any given group. There are lists of criteria that various folks have come up with, that might define a cult, us versus them mentality, ends justify the means philosophy, supernatural beliefs, charismatic leaders, et cetera. But there are plenty of fringy groups that have been or could be called cults that don’t check off all of those boxes. And yet there are lots and lots of mainstream groups that do. The word cult itself is very fraught.


It can be used to refer to anything from a really dangerous destructive fringe religion to a makeup brand. And this wide spectrum of meanings really says something about our culture’s extremely precarious relationship to community and identity and meaning. So, why cults still exist? I mean, in a way, cults are fundamental to human nature and human civilization, we crave connection. We crave finding a purpose, trying to figure out what our existence is for. We crave participating in rituals with other people doing the same, even early humans would engage in group dance and song when there was really no survival reason to do so, it just felt good. Obviously there are societal factors that cause a spike in cultish activity during times of societal crisis, like right now with the pandemic and so much political turbulence. This is when people tend to turn to alternative groups to fill certain voids. We saw something similar in the late sixties, early seventies, but cults continue to crop up, especially in the United States, which is a place of not only religious freedom, but a lot of disparity and ideological conflict.


You know, you mentioned the us versus them mentality, a sense of meaning in community. These are all things that you could say of brands as well. I think that’s what really struck me about the book is that cults are just really, really successful brands in some ways.


I totally agree. What is marketing language? It’s there to manipulate you. And of course, cultish groups, really destructive ones, even the People’s Temple, AKA Jonestown, are expert rebranders and always come up with clever opportunistic ways to pitch what might be even non-existent ideology to followers, to inspire them, et cetera. But yes, if you go Google how to create a cult following, or you know how to create a loyal customer base, you will find dozens and dozens of articles on the internet instructing you how to structure your business like a cult. So fuck yeah, that again speaks to the flexibility of this word, but yeah, no, you can, I, you can. And I completely do make the argument that even if certain brands aren’t full blown cults, they’re at the very least cultish.


Yeah. So, let’s talk about Jim Jones and Jonestown a little bit. You mentioned that he was an expert rebrander, how did he do that?


You know, we have this idea that cult leaders are these evil geniuses with grand master plans from the start, but no cult leader I’ve come across, knew where they were going to end up, knew how far their power was going to go. So, Jim Jones’ original intentions were actually quite positive. He started out as an integrationist pastor. that was in Indiana. And then it evolved as he gained more followers, as his power hunger increased. It went from this church movement to more of a sociopolitical movement that was progressive and combined Christian ideology because he was trying appeal to a lot of black folks in San Francisco who were active in the church scene, but felt left out of the civil rights movement. He was also trying to appeal to young white liberals who were just out of college and were interested in communal living.



And in order to appeal to all of these different groups, the branding, the language had to be really wiggly, if you will. And he had to code switch depending on who he was talking to. He wasn’t code switching in the sort of natural, organic way that we tend to hear about code switching, he was doing it in a very strategic and diabolical way. So, say, there’s a source in the book named Laura Johnston Kohl, who was really interested in anti-racism. She was a young, white, 23 year old activist who had a lot of idealism for the future of the United States. When he would talk to her, he would quote, MEChA and impress her with his philosophical texts. And then, with other folks, he would speak the familiar lilt of a Baptist preacher. And he would do those things intentionally in order to appeal to whatever audience he wanted to follow him.


So, he was basically tailoring his message for the different sub audiences that he had.


Exactly. Without necessarily knowing what his end game was. Because we’re all familiar with Jonestown, this jungle commune where these mind controlled minions lined up and drank the Kool-Aid. But what most folks don’t realize is that that was never the intention and most folks did not die there voluntarily. In fact, you could argue that no one died there voluntarily, and it certainly didn’t start out as a suicide cult. Otherwise, no one would join. It started out as this movement that offered solutions to the world’s most urgent problems in a time of existential turbulence in the United States, not unlike now.


And your source that you talk about, she’s a perfect example of something that I thought was so interesting while I was reading the book, I think a lot of us think that people that join cults, first of all, we think it could never happen to us, but we’re going to talk later about how all of us are probably in some sort of cult without realizing it. But people think those that join cults are broken people, they’ve had trauma in their lives. They’re missing something, they’re weak, or they’ve been quote unquote brainwashed, but that’s not the case, is it?


No, it’s really not. We have this mythology that the people who wind up in cults are desperate, disturbed, intellectually deficient. But what I found, talking to dozens and dozens of sources is that they were incredibly bright, service-minded. Why would a cult want anything less? They want winners. They want folks who are well connected in their communities, who can help recruit more people. They want folks with enough privilege that when they aren’t making money right away, like they were maybe promised, or things are starting to turn sour, that they’ll have the energy and time and money to burn. And what I found was that the ultimate fatal flaw across all of these cult followers from folks who joined the Heaven’s Gate, the nineties suicide cult, to folks who strike up with multi-level marketing cults, in scare quotes, was yeah, not desperation, but optimism.


This overabundance of idealism, that the solutions to their problems, whether that was racism or classism or for financial insecurity, could be found and if that they affiliated with this group, with this leader, they could be a part of that change. It takes someone really optimistic to sign up for a belief like that. If you’re a cynic, you’re probably protected from joining a group, like The People’s Temple or Heaven’s Gate or an MLM, you might die alone. But yeah, it was really optimism that was their Achilles heel more than any of the qualities that the cult documentaries you might watch would lead you to believe.



I think any business person listening to what you just said right now would hear a lot of your language and realize that’s very similar to what businesses and brands look for as well in the audiences that they try to capture, the sense of optimism, eventually having time and money and resources to burn on these causes. I kept thinking of the parallels as I was reading the book and the real big parallel, which is the crux of your research is, that when it comes to branding cults or businesses or anything, the strongest tool that they have is almost always the language they use and the stories that they tell. So, let’s just stick with cults. How do they use language to actually change people’s behavior and stories as well?


Well, first of all, without language, there can be no shared beliefs, no community, no cults. We take language for granted because it’s invisible and seemingly commitment free, sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you, that sort of thing. But language has this real material power to coerce and condition, a power that we often overlook. Now, when we think of why people wind up in cults, there tends to be one pretty flimsy explanation, which is they were brainwashed, they were mind controlled. But I’m not the first person to point out that brainwashing is nothing but a metaphor. It’s not a real or testable scientific phenomenon. You can’t prove that brainwashing doesn’t exist, it also completely discounts people’s ability to think for themselves. You can’t just open someone’s brain and scrub it clean and cause them to do things that they absolutely on no level want to do.


It makes us feel elite. It makes us feel intellectually and morally superior, who didn’t like learning pig Latin on the playground and feeling excited that you knew the secret language that nobody else did. It’s like putting on a snazzy new uniform. It makes you feel like you’re doing something right in life that you know how to speak this special language, and in terms of business, I myself have worked in cultish corporate environments where BS corporate vernacular was used, not to make communication more specific or clearer, but to establish hierarchies, encourage conformity, to squash independent thinking and questioning. And this is ultimately what cultish language does.


And let’s talk about some of that language, it’d be great to hear some examples, especially ones that are maybe more in the mainstream or in pop culture or quasi cult leaders that might be on our Instagram feeds. What are some of the phrases that we might be familiar with that you can unpack for us?


Sure. Well, the first one that comes to mind is a phrase that would fall under the category of thought terminating cliche. Once you understand what it is, you won’t be able to unhear it in your daily life, but it’s a stock expression that’s easily memorized, easily repeated and aimed at shutting down independent thinking or questioning. So, questioning is the enemy to any cult leader. And whenever anyone who’s following them wants to express dissent or a wrinkle in their procedures, they’re going to need a repertoire of these thought terminating cliches to silence that person, to assuage their cognitive dissonance and make them fall in line. So, a thought terminating cliche that we hear a lot on the internet these days, or that I come across a lot is the phrase, do your research. So, there’s a lot of conflict in terms of vaccinations and trusting science.


And a lot of the times you’ll find people who don’t trust the mainstream healthcare industry, and some of that is for a very valid reason, but who’ve struck up with an online cultish group of sorts who believes that doctors are brainwashed and COVID was a conspiracy, et cetera. They don’t believe in peer reviewed studies, they don’t trust the scientists behind those studies. So, research to them means something completely different. It could mean something different from person to person, but when they get into a online argument with someone about science and the person is presenting research that conflicts with what they’ve been led to believe, they’ll say, well, I did my research, do your research, and then you can talk to me.


And this is this buzz phrase that you’ll hear repeated, and it really prevents the conversation from moving forward. It really shuts them down. But other forms of new age thought terminating cliches that you’ll often are in really destructive cultish groups like NXIVM, but also in mainstream woo woo circles, or at least not super fringe woo, woo circles. You’ll hear valid concerns being dismissed as limiting beliefs rather.


Yes, very familiar.


Yes. That’s a limiting belief. And that can cause you to mistrust your own very valid experiences and feelings. This language can work as a form of gas lighting. Another example of a thought turning cliche you might hear in certain spaces is telling people, don’t let yourself be ruled by fear, where that fear might be completely legitimate and is there for a reason. So, these are just a few examples and every cult has their own roster of thought terminating cliches that they need in order to cause people to conform and not to think independently.


So, how does this kind of language go from being inside the confines of a cult and then crossing over into pop culture and then showing up on my social media feeds,


Right. Well, in the good old days of cults, in the sixties and seventies, you needed to be able to command a group of people in person and sort of fringe, new religious movements, sociopolitical movements, they had to gather in the real world. And that takes a certain amount of production skills, management skills in person oratory charisma to coordinate. But now with the internet, multiple social media platforms, you don’t need the charisma to manipulate a group of people, you just need the charisma to manipulate an algorithm, and that’s a whole lot easier to do. So, for better and for worse, social media has caused there to be a cult for everyone. I mean, I joke, but I also mean it sincerely that the algorithm is the ultimate cult later, because it just sends you down rabbit holes, encouraging you to believe more and more extreme versions of what you already do to find yourself in these really insular online circles.


You may never meet the influencers, the cultish gurus on social media that you follow in real life, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a material impact on the way that you think, formulate your ideas, vote, buy things, gather in person. Parasocial relationships can be just as cultish as relationships in real life. And of course also, years and years ago, there was a clearer separation between business leader, celebrity, spiritual leader. There wasn’t such a thing as an influencer decades ago, but now those lines are really, really blurry. Take someone like Elon Musk, that guy is a business leader. A few decades ago, the average American wouldn’t even know that guy’s name, we wouldn’t be able to name see CEOs in that position, but he’s become not just a business leader meets celebrity meets influencer, some people really do worship him almost as a new religious guru.


They think he’s such a super genius that he’s operating on another more awakened, enlightened plane. He’s literally trying to transport people to outer space, which has these millenarian UFO cult vibes. So, yeah, the boundaries blurring guru self-help star workout instructor, celebrity, they’re, they’re causing our culture to become increasingly cultish, I think.


You know what’s so funny? We’ve seen in our own research that more and more boards are looking to place CEOs that I think the terminology is blue whales, CEOs that already have huge followings on social, that can command an audience that have compelling public personas. That’s really seen as a value add for placing CEOs in public companies, where before it was really about growth, right?




It’s completely infiltrated the business world. So, like you’ve pointed out, brands have borrowed a lot of clear devices from Colts. You mentioned creating rituals … I think you mentioned creating rituals, is that and health brands, tech brands, the in group, out group dynamic, I think a lot of brands create language around that kind of feeling or concept, but what are some less obvious mechanics that brands have borrowed from cults in their everyday marketing that we might know not see, but they’re there?


Well, honestly I think that the language is the most subtle thing because you pick it up so organically and so invisibly. I remember when … obviously, I’m extremely tuned into language just because of, I was even very tuned into language as a little kid. It’s just the lens through which I see, or I guess hear the world. But I remember I used to work at a digital media company that owned a fashion magazine, a beauty magazine, very cliquey, a little bit cultish. And I remember arriving at my first day and thinking it rather odd that absolutely everything was abbreviated or acronymed in the company, even if it took longer to say the abbreviation or acronym than it did just to say the regular word. And I think it created this culture of elitism and coolness, like you know what this acronym means or you don’t, and once you do know it, you better use it or you’ll be clocked as a rebel, an iconoclast, a troublemaker.


I remember there was so much corporate vernacular that was used that made me cringe to, oh gosh, the worst one to me was the noun sunset was used as a transitive verb to mean when some sort of project or initiative was not working out, you would sunset it. You would kill it in a way. But it was this creepy euphemism that I just couldn’t understand. Like, I didn’t know why we had to use language in this way. But it became clear that it really was just to identify who was a team player, who would really participate in that echo chamber and reflect the higher up’s madness back at them. And those people would be chosen for opportunities, promotions, et cetera. And those who didn’t use that language in that particular way would be in a very subtle manner penalized for it. And I don’t think anyone else noticed this, these dynamics in the company but me, and it’s really because language, it’s so subtle and it’s so natural to us that we don’t really pay attention to it.


So, can language change the way someone sees the world? Can it actually change someone’s identity?


No, no. There’s this theory in linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which talks about the relationship between language and thought. And most linguists tend to agree that language cannot determine thought. You’re still able to things for which there is no language, language does influence thought, but it doesn’t determine it. Even if you are deep into religious cults or a corporate cults, and you’re using their vernacular from sun up to sun down, if you start to feel as though there’s something amiss or this isn’t right for you anymore, you may not have the language to push back, that cultish vernacular might be really, really embedded in you, but you’ll still be able to have those inklings, those emotions. And ultimately, if you don’t want to believe in a certain idea anymore, no amount of language could force you to, this isn’t 1984.


And some people do think, Jim Jones certainly tried to quote unquote, brainwash his followers with language. He would instate this silent rule where whenever he was speaking over the loud speaker in Jonestown, no one was allowed to talk. He would force all of his followers to express daily thanks toward him, even when they were starving and the labor was backbreaking and there was really nothing to be thankful for. This is also something that’s that was done in the LuLaRoe documentary that I just watched, if anyone has watched LulaRich on Amazon Prime, all of those followers were supposed to express daily thanks to the MLM higher ups.


Really? Wow.


Oh yeah. Well, every time anything positive happened in their lives and they posted it on social media, they were supposed to include the hashtag because of LulaRoe as if everything good in their lives were a product of their affiliation with LuLaRoe.


So, a very similar idea there. And yet, even if you’re hashtagging because of LuLaRoe or thanking Jim Jones all day long, if you know in your bones that your life sucks and that there’s something really wrong here, that language isn’t going to do much. So, it’s validating and simultaneously unsettling to know that people who wind up really, really deep in destructive cults are in large part there because they want to be, there’s a lot of psychological manipulation going on, obviously, and the more destructive a cult is, the harder it is to get out. And in certain circumstances, your life is threatened if you attempt to defect, the stakes can be incredibly high, but if someone really, really wants to push back, even if they can’t leave physically, mentally, they still can.


So, let’s talk about LuLaRoe for a second and all these MLMs, just the ones we’re familiar with Mary Kay, Avon, Arbonne, but most of these, this really heady mix of cults, MLMs and female empowerment. A lot of brands sit in this trifecta, including LuLaRoe, what is happening here and why is this such a powerful combination?


Sure. Well, the direct selling industry is almost like the American dream on steroids. Like this spoofed version of values that we are all taught to have as Americans, individualism, progress, ambition, and most of all meritocracy, the idea that those who succeed really deserve their success and those who don’t succeed simply didn’t work hard enough. The MLM industry takes these values to an extreme. So, the MLM industry has simultaneously always targeted people locked out of the dignified labor market. So, since the Dawn of the MLM industry, the primary target has always been non-working wives and mothers. And that’s because in the 1940s, which is really the start of the modern direct selling industry, a lot of women who had worked, who had been gainfully employed in World War II were sent back into the home, pushed out to the suburbs after their husbands or their partners returned home from war.


And they started families, and now after these women had left the workplace, they were lacking that empowerment, that sense of individualism and certainly the cash that they had been making before. And so, the direct selling industry found an opportunity there. And so, while in the 1940’s and 50’s, Tupperware was promised to be the best thing that happened to women since they got the vote, which was the sort of trendy, pseudo feminist message at that time. Now the direct selling industry, here’s your expert rebranding uses this sort of Pinterest commodified feminist message about boss babes and She EOs and mompreneurs, start your own business, become part of the movement without ever having to leave your kids. So, yeah, the MLM industry has always co-opted whatever trendy, quasi feminist vernacular was resonating at the time.


And now, not only do you hear words like girl boss, et cetera, but you get the MLM industry praying on certain millennial women’s interest in natural, organic, holistic skincare, not to mention in and outside of the MLM industry, millennials and just consumers today want their products and their workplace not only to sell things and provide them with an income, but they want to be part of something bigger. They want, what’s called an organizational ideology, which I’m sure many listeners are familiar with, which is the idea that this is not just a product or service, but this is an identity. There are identity benefits here, by you buying this beach towel made out of recycled fishing net, you’re not only, you know, coming into a towel, but you’re coming into an identity as someone who’s eco-conscious and beachy and sexy, someone who’s hip and in the know.


These things are important to a lot of us these days, especially as we increasingly mistrust and move away from traditional religion and these other sites of community support. Now we’re looking a lot of the times to companies, brands to fill those voids, to provide those role models. And that can sometimes be okay, but there’s a lot of room for exploitation and predator as well.


Yeah. I want to talk about another group that’s tangential to this, which is also female focused, which is the fitness industry. You talked about that a lot about in your book. That’s also a place where you see a lot of crossover between cultureness and pop culture. But what was fascinating to me was the origins of the modern fitness industry and its cultish influences. Can you give us the background on how those two became intertwined?


Sure. So, the dawn of cultish new religions in the US, which is around the 70’s, really corresponds to the dawn of women exercising in general. So, for a very long time, women were not encouraged to exercise in the United States. In fact, doctors recommended that they didn’t. But in the 1970s and then the 1980s with the women’s liberation movement well underway and the classes of Title IX and the invention of the sports bra, actually, women figured out that it was actually fun to exercise, and it was even more fun to exercise together in groups. So, that’s when you saw the dawn of Jazzercise, which took off in the mid 80’s and you saw the Dawn of Big Box Gyms and celebrity influencers like Jane Fonda and Raquel Welch, who were the first fitness influencers, if you will. And then shortly after that in the 80’s and 90’s, that’s when and yoga really started to enter the Western mainstream.


And so, concepts from yoga, which had existed for thousands and thousands of years in the east and for a few decades in America’s fringes, these yoga concepts combined with images from body building that came from Europe and it produced this Americanized, westernized version of yoga, which was very acrobatic. And yoga studios were the first places where the idea that your spiritual fitness and your physical fitness were connected. So, these studios were not just a place to change your body, they were a place to change your mind. And by the 21st century, all kinds of what are known as cult fitness studios took that concept and really ran with it. So, now we have dozens of fitness studios that put their own spin on the idea that this fitness place is not only a place to get flat abs and a tight booty, but it’s where you’re going to meet your best friends, become enlightened, find the inner strength to divorce your abusive spouse, overcome cancer.


I mean, the promises made in these studios are really enormous. And I think that is actually the most cultish thing about them is these enormously lofty promises, which are made by these cult followed instructors who are trained to build their own mini cult following. And of course you can’t actually cure your cancer by going to SoulCycle five times a week, but the sense of transcendence in those studios is so gargantuan that not every follower, but some of them will come to develop this really spiritual dependence on these places.


You mentioned that cults seem to crop up more when there’s moments of social unrest or insecurity like in the 70’s and now, but have calls changed much? Because it seems to me like a lot of the modern day cults you’re talking about, or let’s say cultish brands you’re talking about, borrow from tried and true methods that have been around for a while. Is there any innovation, let’s say, happening in the cult space?


Cults really just prey on whatever imagery, ideology is resonating at that time and just clothing trends, they go through cycles. So, the new age is really, really popular right now. The new age was also really popular in the 60’s and 70’s. New age, meaning a lot of mystical ideas that incorporate co-opted appropriated concepts from Eastern and indigenous religions and given a sort of Western boho twist, I suppose you could say. But yeah, I mean, like doomsday ideas, ideas of paradigm shifts and reckonings, these are all the same. And in fact, new age ideas also really pull a lot of ideas from Christianity, evangelicalism. The idea of a great awakening or a paradigm shift is not different from the idea of a rapture. The idea of being born in trauma is not that different from being born in sin. There are a lot of good evil binaries in the new age space in the same way that there are good evil binaries in evangelical Christianity. So, yeah, it’s a lot of recycled ideas totally not unlike other sorts of trends.


Right. Now, you say that on some level, probably all of us are in some sort of cult. I know as I was reading the book and as I started to think of language devices and in, out groups thought terminating cliches, all his stuff, I started to see it everywhere in my life. And I know the cultish groups that I subscribe to. People hearing this, SoulCycle, Supreme, MLMs, yoga studios, they’re on the same spectrum, albeit maybe wildly apart, but still on the same spectrum as the cults that we actually, think of as quote, unquote, scary cults. When does something cultish become a cult? When do groups of people or businesses, because most cults are businesses too, when do they actually cross the line?


Yeah. Well, every cult scholar you talk to is probably going to give you a slightly different answer because there is no hard and fast definitive algorithm that can determine whether or not this is definitively a cult. Again, because what is the difference between cult, religion, another kind of sociopolitical group? The word itself does not provide enough information, as I mentioned, but yeah, you can really go down that list of criteria for yourself, which again, even the criteria will differ from one person to another and every cult scholar has their own school of thought. There’s Steven Hassan, who is a cult expert who does a lot of press and has written a few books. And he has something called the bite method, which has its own criteria and boxes to check off.


For me, I tend to think of that list I mentioned before, are there gray exit costs? Are there, those ends justify the means philosophies going on? Is it very difficult to express dissent? Anything legitimate will stand up to scrutiny. So, if you’re not able to express scrutiny, that’s a major red flag. Are there extremely lofty promises being made? And then sort of bait and switches coming after, these are all red flags, but none of the red flags will tell you yes, for sure, this is a cult. You have to determine that for yourself.


Yeah. And all of this brings us to the really big point I think of the book, and I think it was really summarized perfectly by this Harvard religion scholar that you interviewed. And he said something so interesting. He said, “Meaning making is a growth industry.” Can you unpack that for us a little bit?


Sure. Well, as I was mentioning before, we as human beings, crave meaning purpose, ritual, connection. These are profoundly human drives that have always existed since the dawn of human civilization. Life is confounding, there are so many questions that we have yet to answer. Life is extremely overwhelming. And there are lots of different groups that attempt to provide those much desired answers. Now, tens of thousands of years ago, those answers were provided in the forms of stories that were passed down generation to generation, but we’re in late capitalism, baby. So, something can be monetized, it will. And that’s the reason why so many corporations are serving this pseudo religious role in our lives because they’re not just providing you with products and services, they are providing you with that almost liturgical experience, that sacred space where you can go into a soul cycle studio, or you can identify as a Glossier girl or you can strike up with any other brand and get that feeling of, okay, I feel comforted, I feel like I have answers, I feel like I know who I am.


Because especially in the 21st century, there are countless directions that a person’s life could go in, compared to 50 or more years ago. What should my hair color be? What should my job be? What kind of music should I like? Where should I live? That chooser’s paradox is really overwhelming. And if a brand can provide a identity template, this is what your life means, this is who you are. That can be incredibly comforting, and if that will help a brand succeed, they’re certainly going to do everything they can to provide that template.


So, if somebody goes through the experience that you’ve gone through, which is this very eyeopening clarifying realization of how language works in our world, how the spectrum from cultish to cult exists all around us, how we’re immersed in it, what is the good of all of this? What is the other side to this story?


Yeah. Well, I was concerned writing this book that it would turn me into this cynical misanthrope, but in fact, the opposite happened. And I have this newfound appreciation for how fundamentally communal and dreamy human beings really are. And I by no means think that people should be paranoid or hyper weary of the cultishness that imbues our everyday lives. I don’t think we should disaffiliate from every cultish group or brand that we participate in or patronize. I think it’s simply about being aware of these cultish techniques, that all kinds of groups from religious ones to secular ones are using. And instead of maybe wholly submitting yourself to one group, to one guru, to use a finance analogy, diversify your social and spiritual portfolio, to be a member of multiple cultish groups that Jonestown source I mentioned earlier, Laura Johnston Kohl, who was a member of not one but two infamous cults Jonestown and Synanon, look that up later, my dad spent his teenage years in that cult, which is another story, she finally determined after joining these two communes.


She was like, “Nope, I’m, I’m giving up this single compound solution.” And then she decided she was going to become a Quaker and an immigrant’s rights activist and hang out with her Synanon buddies from time to time and meditate with a different group. But it was important at the end of each of those experiences, to tap out and to return to her independent life and identity, which was more complex than any one given group or guru. So, it’s fun and it’s meaningful and it can be healing to participate in a cultish group, whether it’s SoulCycle or some divine goddess moon circle, or whatever it is, listen to your Joe Rogan podcast, I don’t know. But you can’t wholly, 100%, put your identity and your worth and your beliefs in that figure, because that’s when you start to lose yourself to a more destructive form of cultish influence.


Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Unseen Unknown. If you like it, subscribe, leave a rating, better yet, leave a review. We appreciate all of your support and are very grateful to have such an amazing community of other intellectually curious people out in the world. We’ll see you again next time.

Interesting Links & More Reading


20: Ownership Anxiety, Brand Storytelling, and the Human Condition

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin

Have you ever stopped to think about what ownership means to us as a culture? Many of us see it as an artifact of the legal system or something that’s decided in courts. We believe it is a self-evident concept that lives outside of us and isn’t really part of who we are, but rather a set of rules that affects our mortgages and our car payments.

But ownership is in fact very much a part of what makes us human.

Today and throughout history, a mere six competing stories of ownership have dictated how everything in the world is distributed. As resources have become scarcer, everyone from American homesteaders and ranchers, to tech leaders and consumer brands, have created ways to impose their own preferred ownership story in a world where what it means to “own” something is constantly evolving.

We speak with Michael Heller and James Salzman, two of the world’s leading scholars and authorities on ownership, and co-authors of the book Mine!: How The Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives to understand how the concept of ownership has been upending the brand landscape.

They explain to us how the rules of ownership change in every generation, and how those changes reveal the true brand frontier, the role of business, and most importantly, a society’s shifting values.

Podcast Transcript

JUNE 15, 2021

66 min read



Welcome to Unseen Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina. Have you ever stopped to think about what ownership means to us as a culture? Many of us see it as an artifact of the law, something that’s decided in courts, a self-evident concept that lives outside of us and isn’t really a part of who we are, but rather a set of rules that affects our mortgages and our car payments. But let’s take a moment to consider this through the lens of a familiar story in the Bible.  


…. the fourth river is Euphrates, and the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man saying, “Of every tree of the garden, thou mayest freely eat. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”  


We all know what happens next. Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge and they’re kicked out of the garden of Eden. But what’s interesting is that if you listen closely, there is an ownership story at the heart of this passage. God says, “That fruit is mine and mine alone. You can’t have it. And if you take it, there will be consequences.” That ownership story is how humanity begins. 


Ownership is in fact very much a part of what makes us human. It is not a system relegated to the law. As resources have become scarcer, everyone from early American homesteaders and ranchers, to today’s tech leaders and consumer brands, have created ways to impose their own preferred ownership stories. In this week’s episode of Unseen Unknown, we’re speaking to Michael Heller and James Salzman, two of the world’s leading scholars and authorities on ownership, and coauthors of the book, Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control our Lives. 


They reveal to us how the rules of ownership change in every generation and how those changes reveal the true brand landscape, the role of business, and most importantly, the society’s shifting values.


Think when was the last time you were in an airplane. For me, it was a while ago. When you lean back and the person behind you says, “Hey, you’re in my lap.” What’s going on there? You’re both claiming that wedge of space behind the airline seat. When you’re each saying, “That space is mine,” what each of you are doing, the person in front leaning back and the person behind you who is squished, you’re each relying on, it turns out, one of six simple stories that everyone uses to claim everything in the world. 


When I lean back, when I press that button, I’m using the attachment story. It’s mine because it’s attached to something mine, the back of that seat’s attached to my seat and that space is mine. The person behind is saying, “Hold on a second. I had the space first.” First in time. That’s the second primitive powerful story. The person behind is also saying, “I possess that space. That’s where my laptop is. That’s where my knees go.” Possession is nine-tenths of the law is a third of those six simple stories.


So right there, when you lean back on an airplane, that’s already three of the six simple stories that everyone uses, attachment, first, and possession. The fourth story is labor. It’s mine. Why? Because I worked for it. You reap what you sow. Fifth story, it’s mine because it comes from my body, our bodies ourselves. The sixth and final story, it’s mine because I’m in the family, birth and death, marriage and divorce. That’s when big amounts of property really move.


That’s it. The three simple stories when you lean back, labor, our bodies, and our families. And that’s it, all ownership conflicts. Everyone fighting over everything is a fight among those six simple stories.


What’s interesting is that you call them stories. There doesn’t seem to be any innate, fundamental truth behind ownership. These are all competing stories, the way you describe it.



Ownership is really a storytelling battle. One of the real message, one of the real points for us to write in this book is to have people realize that ownership and who gets what, basically, who gets what in the world isn’t something for lawyers. 99.99% ownership disputes, who gets what and why, happen outside of the law. What’s going on there is I’m telling a story for why it should be mine, and you are saying another story for why it should be yours. 


Our kids are saying stories in the playground. “The shovel is mine because I had at first.” “No, I’m holding onto it.” And that’s always what’s going on with every battle, not just in the playground, but also for climate change and who owns wealth in America. It’s the same simple stories. They really are that, just attempts to be persuasive over who gets what and why. 


The other thing to realize is that this goes way back. Really what we’re talking about is who gets access to scarce resources. It’s not just humans. I mean, birds. When you go out and you hear the wonderful birds chirping, they’re not saying, “Oh, wonderful. So happy to see you, Jasmine.” It’s not like a Disney film. What they’re actually saying is, “Back off, buddy. This territory is mine.” And it has to be that way. 


Yeah. It’s interesting when you bring up the airline story because, as you guys have described in the book, the airline is really selling that space twice. And they could easily just make a rule, like who does that space belong to? But they choose not to do that. What are some ways that brands play with ownership stories, or manipulate ownership stories, or maybe don’t even tell ownership stories in order to create the behaviors that they want among their consumers?


Let’s take another airplane story, and that’s Southwest. Southwest has open seating. Basically, it’s first come, first serve. Depending on when you sign up, 24 hours, you’re either group A, B or C, or you can just pay a little money and be in the early bird. There’s this huge debate that’s arisen, really conflict that’s arisen over what happens when someone in group A goes in and then saves a seat for riff-raff in group C. Fights break out over this. They’re actually on the bulletin board for Southwest. There are these raging back and forth. USA Today has written about this.


Southwest knows this is happening. They tell the attendants, “Don’t get involved.” They could clearly solve this. They could have a rule that says, “No saving seats.” They could rule, “You can save seats. No saving seats in exit rows.” They could do any of this. They don’t. Why don’t they? They don’t because they expect that us, the passengers, are going to work it out amongst ourselves. We’re going to rely on politeness, and customs, and good manners, and such, except when we don’t.



But thing that’s fascinating, and it’s true both for Southwest and for that example we started with, with the reclining airline seat, the one actor you don’t blame is the airline, when in fact they’re the ones who are creating this problem in the first place. It’s even worse, to go back to the original reclining seat, because the airlines have reduced what’s called pitch. That’s the distance between the seats. One inch of saved space is equivalent to adding an entire row the airline. It’s real money that’s involved.


We didn’t use to have fights of whether you can recline your airline seat, in part because the seats weren’t so close together, and in part because the space itself wasn’t so valuable. Now it is. We use the space differently. Laptops are now our entertainment centers, our workspaces. And so, the space is more valuable, it’s tighter. But we blame each other. We don’t blame the airline.


From the ownership perspective, what’s going on here is that airlines are using one of the most advanced tools of ownership design that we reveal. This particular tool is called strategic ambiguity. Ownership is ambiguous a lot more often than people realize because there are these competing stories. People don’t realize ownership is up for grabs. And the airlines know this. They take advantage of our innate feeling that we want to just work things out. We don’t want to be the bad guy.


So it’s that wanting to work things out that lets them sell that space, sell that wedge of space twice at every seat on every flight. Strategic ambiguity is just one of the really important tools that we’ve identified that leading edge brands use to profit from what we call ownership engineering.


That’s so fascinating. We’re all competing over scarce resources, but I think people like me feel like, “Well, we’re living in modern times. Resources aren’t scarce like they used to be.”



Well, if you think back to the origins of America, the discovery by Europeans of the continent, and then the conquest of the people that were already living here, all ownership in America, every single piece of land, the place that you’re standing right now, place that you live, every plot of land in America traces back to a seller who sold it to you, who bought it from someone else who sold it to them, and then traces back ultimately to conquest.


So what you see in America, and what you see actually for every piece of land everywhere in the world is the playing out of these ownership stories, “It’s ours. Country is ours. The land is ours,” versus, “Land is ours because we labored in a particular way to make it ours. We labored to cut down trees, to clear the fields, to plant in rows, to basically make new England look like old England.” So the origin of ownership in America, the origin of ownership in the world always traces back to these same few simple stories.


As land, or airplane seat space, or your online clickstream, the record of your likes and looks online, whenever any resource becomes scarcer, anything, and that is everything, people fight over it. 


One of the other aspects of this that I think is fascinating is how technology changes this. Think back to the Westerns we all love to watch the limitless vista of cattle, with the cowboys and the doggies and stuff, that only existed for a few decades in America. Actually, those cattle drives were over private land, going from the ranches to the railway stations. They could basically ship them off Chicago and such.


Why was it over private land? Well, because there was no way for the private land owners to keep the cattle out. Cattle don’t care. Cowboys probably couldn’t read, or if they could read, they’re not going to care anyway. What changes all that? Very simple invention, barbed wire. Joseph Glidden invents this. All of a sudden, you have a way to inexpensively enforce your property rights. 


Barbed wire really is the fundamental reason that we see so much agriculture in places that used to be pure ranching. They’re the range wars that they talk about. These were very real and dangerous fights, and technology, ownership technology was at the heart of it.


What is the equivalent of barbed wire for our age today? Have we seen something as impactful as that?  


Yes, very much so. I think of our cell phones as being the barbed wire of our day. Barbed wire is what created the “No Trespassing” version of ownership in America, the version that said, “The attachment story wins over the possession story of the ranchers.” Your cell phone is the technology today that lets you buy a stream of services. You press the button and a car comes, or you press a button and you get an apartment. So that shift to the micro payments, to being able to track things, that whole ability to organize our lives around a new technology of ownership. 


The cell phones are important in the sense that they’re quite a lot of actual technology in there. But what’s under-appreciated is the transformative effect they have in the kinds of ways that we can fight over and divide scarce resources. We can divide them up in ways that we never could have done even a few years ago.


It’s so interesting to see over and over again that it’s the same laws, no matter how much the world changes, that we always go back to, to figure out how we’re going to deal with this brave new world. I know that you guys talk about how a lot of our ideas around ownership are changing. They’re under attack. Culturally, why, as a group, are we starting to renegotiate these six laws?


They’re all in flux, and they always have been, all the way back to the Bible and they are still today. But one of the thing that’s most visible right now is the change in possession. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. We’re wired to have a very actual physical, tangible reaction in our brains when we hold on to something tangible and physical. You hold a mug, it becomes worth more to you than that same mug was worth just a moment before. 


That’s why the Apple stores are these open scenes of tests. They want you touching this stuff because you’re actually willing to pay more once you touch it. It’s why car dealerships have test drives. They want you to be physically connected with the stuff. So retailers already know the importance of physical connection. What’s changing most rapidly of the six stories today is the move to an online world where retailers want to evoke that primitive feeling of connection. 


But it’s very hard to do in the online world. So that’s why, for example, Amazon has that little shopping cart and why they have this “Buy Now” button that’s highlighted. What they’re trying to do is to basically have you have that feeling of when you actually buy a book and bring it home. They’re saying downloading a book is the same. You can buy it now. The reality is that your online life isn’t what you actually think it is. The “Buy Now” button doesn’t mean what you think the “Buy Now” button means.


When you click that to download a book, Amazon can, and indeed has, deleted books right off of people’s Kindles, just like Apple has deleted movies right off people’s devices. Online you actually own more like one-tenth. Possession is not nine-tenths anymore. That gap between nine-tenths of the law, that feeling that we have, and the reality of what you actually have, it’s one of the biggest shifts that people don’t realize about what it means to move to an online world.


About 90% of people believe that buying something online is the same as buying the physical version of it, and that’s not true. Because of that gap, Amazon and Apple, they each earn an unearned, an extra premium and extra profit on every single download because we think we own more than we actually do in the online world.


Take one example. If you hold up your iPhone, I mean, this is pretty amazing. What you actually own, you actually own a plastic brick. But what makes the iPhone valuable is the operating system. You don’t own that. It’s the data on your phone. You don’t own that either. It’s stored for you. As Michael said, we’re not wired to think in terms of ones and zeros, so these intangible forms of ownership. We’re used to thinking about horses, and horse shoes, and the clods of earth they run on.


And so, there’s this real shift that’s taking place, and folks don’t get it, in the sense that we’re just not wired to think that way, and retailers obviously realize that and try to make the online experience, as Michael said, as similar as possible in the setup to actually just being in a store.


Yeah. Also in the book, you guys roll the dice forward and you say, “I mean, what happens in a world where we don’t own anything?” And if you think about it, so many of our communities historically have been focused around shared ownership of something, I own a home, you own a home. We’re in the same neighborhood. There’s a camaraderie there. What’s your take on where this is all going in terms of the culture around community and how we gather?


I was in a Airbnb two summers ago in Barcelona, downtown Barcelona. It was wonderful. I loved… So a wonderful city. But what I realized, on the streets, was that nobody spoke Spanish, or Catalan, which is actually the language in Barcelona. But what they were all speaking was German, and French, and English. Basically, downtown Barcelona has been taken over by Airbnb so that the ability to have a neighbor who is going to help you out when you’re sick or someone whose door you can knock on and borrow a cup of sugar, intact communities, is disappearing, that we’re moving to a new kind of living together world where the strength of ties that underlies…


The little league team, or the Cub Scouts, or the Brownies, the sense that we’re more than just ourselves, that we’re part of a community is starting to fray, not because of big partisan politics, but because of the hypermobility that comes from living in a streaming world, a world where you stream residences rather than in a stock world, the world where you own and stay put for some longer period of time.


There’s an optimistic and a dystopic version of where we’re going with the move to an online ownership. The six simple stories don’t change, but the technology does change and the culture changes with it.


Do you think people realize that we’re actively making this trade-off every time we buy into these shifting notions of ownership, or not quite?


No one realizes this. So much about ownership is that it’s a language that we speak. It’s a language that we’re socialized into as small children, and we don’t even realize. We are like fish swimming in the ocean and we don’t realize that we’re actually in water. The water are these rules, these stories, these practices about who gets what and why, the way we defer to each other, all of that shapes every minute of our lives.


It’s how you stand in the line to get a cup of coffee. It’s how you line up to get gas for your car. It’s where you live. It’s what you drink. It’s the medications you take. Everything always, all around you, is being shaped actively by people who know how to use these simple stories to get what they want. It may or may not be what you want.


Let’s talk about ownership of communities in the digital sphere. A lot of interesting things have happened recently. The New York Times abandoned their Facebook cooking group because the culture got so toxic, they decided to just throw their hands up and walk away from it. You have apps like Telegram famously picked off the app store and then sued for not kicking them off the app store sooner.


New apps like Clubhouse, where there’s been a lot of chatter about ethically and morally, what does a platform or a brand like that owe to the safety of its users? A lot of this is signaling, how much does the brand really own when it comes to community? What’s your thought on that? Where is this going?


The baseline here is that the app or the service that’s selling you that service owns the content on it. So it’s not a first amendment issue. It’s not a free speech issue. If Telegram says, “You can say this,” then do your complaint is with Telegram. They say you can’t be on it, your complaint is with Telegram. If they delete your tweets, you didn’t own them in the first place. So online, it turns out, you own much, much less of your digital life, which for many of us is our real lives, than people believe that they own.


All those Facebook posts and likes that you’re making, Facebook owns them and Facebook profits from them. You don’t pay to use Facebook. The reason is that you are the product. You’re not the consumer. They’re selling everything about you to advertisers, so they can target you more effectively to sell you stuff you may or you may not want. So who owns communities online? Not you is the answer.


That has a very profound consequence for what your life is going to look like. When people used to pass away, they would leave a trunk of old love letters or diaries, some tangible record that they had lived a life and they had loved, and they had been connected to people. Today, all of that potentially disappears. There’s no tangible record of the most intimate thoughts that you had beyond those controlled by companies that may well not have your interests foremost in their minds.


There are these shifts taking place. I remember very well I moved about five years ago. I’d been at Duke for over a decade and then moved out to the University of California, Santa Barbara. I remember going through my Duke account, which is going to close, and printing out some of the emails. It just felt weird to do that because I don’t have the journals or the letters. There’s this very incomplete and awkward attempt to recreate what Michael is talking about.


On the other hand, there’s also a panopticon, this notion of the all-seen eye, which is that much more of our lives are being recorded online than ever would have been put into our diaries. What that means is potentially, if you do pass away, for example, whoever does have access to your Facebook account can learn all sorts of intimate details, not just about you, but about all the third parties that you were interacting with, whose privacy would very much have been protected in a pre-online world.


Because was one of the questions for our day is, how do we think about this enormity of information that is being kept around for us? Not just the specific letters that we want to write, but every email, every tweet, every direct message, all of it is being saved in ways that are very much outside of our awareness, and to some extent, outside of our control.


This leads me to another thing that I thought was very interesting in the book, which is this quote. “There’s an important difference between natural and virtual resources. So far, governments have not been driving ownership online.” Can you describe that a little more?


Right. Think about kids fighting a playground. They’re saying, “Mine, mine, mine.” Psychologists have studied those fights and it turns out that whenever you hear that, toddlers four-year-olds, five-year-olds, they’re fighting about a shovel, or some food, something tangible. They’re never saying, “Mine,” about a joke or a story. That division goes back to the notion we were talking about before about the change in the idea of possession from nine-tenths to one-tenth.


The online world was never thought to be property. We had things called patent law and copyright law. The notion that there’s something called intellectual property, it’s actually a fairly recent ideological invention by patent lawyers and copyright lawyers to try to get people to think about our intangible lives, our online lives as being like our tangible ones. Most people wouldn’t ever shoplift a CD or a DVD, but when Jim and I poll our students, these are law students. 100% of them illegally download and stream books and movies and music.


So we have a really different sense online about what it means to own things. That’s been driven substantially outside of law. Governments really have not taken the lead in trying to think through what ownership should look like in the online world. It’s been driven much more by businesses trying to tell these stories about labor, “We worked for it, and therefore it’s ours.” Or sometimes the opposite, “It’s ours, but we want you to steal it.” That’s the magic of HBO. HBO actually lets… It tolerates, even encourages, people to steal their passwords.


All of our students use passwords that mostly aren’t theirs. They’re using somebody else’s HBO account. It turns out HBO can find you. They can find out who you are. But they choose not to. They actually far prefer for people to be stealing because it builds future consumers. HBO uses password stealing as another advanced tool of ownership design. Like strategic ambiguity for airlines, they’re using a tool there called tolerated theft, because tolerated theft helps build their business. This is mostly happening outside of the law.


What’s fascinating is that Netflix is having second thoughts. Some of your listeners may have noticed on Netflix recently, there are messages coming up saying, “Just to remind you, you’re only supposed to use this within the same household.” And it’s a beta. They haven’t decided yet whether they want to crack down or not. 


Yeah. HBO and Netflix, they’re long-term players, and they’re thinking ahead. What they want is for you to feel that you’re stealing just a little. Like when people use somebody else’s passwords, all our students, we know it’s wrong. We know we shouldn’t be doing this. That’s the feeling that HBO wants you to have, is to… People do it. They don’t want to pay right now, but they know that they’re doing something wrong. What they’re actually doing is actually committing a federal crime. It’s actually punishable by up to a year in jail to use somebody else’s password.


But HBO wants you to be vaguely aware that something is a miss, which is part of this longer term strategy to have you feel, to have your brain react, if this is possible, in the same way it reacts to the mug that you’re holding onto, to light up in the same way, to feel that copyright is like property, not just some ephemeral construction in American law. It’s an uphill battle for them. It’s why they have those… When the movie starts, the lights go down and says, “Piracy is not a victimless crime,” those scary Interpol badges.


What they’re trying to do is get you to feel that what you’re doing is stealing. That’s part of trying to have you assimilate or to analogize intellectual property, intangible property, to good old-fashioned hard, physical stuff. So they’re trying to figure out how do they activate those ownership instincts in an intangible world.



Going back to the intellectual property thing that you were talking about, patents are being filed at a dizzying rate. I think the patent office in the US is struggling to keep up with tech eating the world. It seems like IP is never going to slow down. What’s the end game here? Where is this going to end up?


Well, there is a phenomenon, actually, that I discovered about 20 years ago, which is a concern. I call this phenomenon gridlock. Gridlock arises when there are too many owners of the same thing. Paradoxically, when there are too many owners, it means scarce and valuable can be wasted, can be destroyed by being underused. The most important examples of this out in our economy today turn out to be in the area of patents.


It used to be the case that when a scientist figured something out in their university lab or government funded project, they just published it. The way that they got rewarded was that they got famous, maybe they won a Nobel prize, they got tenure. But all the basic knowledge you needed to make to put pills in bottles, all that basic knowledge was available for free. The scientists didn’t patent their discoveries, by and large. The drug makers did. But the basic tools they used to make drugs were all available to everyone. We all built on each other’s shoulders when we created.


Starting about 40 years ago, America switched to a new strategy, which let people patent really basic tools for science, all the stuff that we need to actually do research. Now if you want to put a pill in the bottle, you have to collect potentially dozens, or hundreds in many cases, of separately owned patents, and each one of those patent owners can block you


Why did we make that switch 40 years ago? What happened?


It was an illogical moment. That was when President Reagan was elected after Carter, and it was right at the very end of the communist countries regime as they were starting to fall apart. There was a real push in this country, a very heavy ideological push originally, but eventually it became an American push towards privatization, the notion that government couldn’t fix things and people should be more incentivized, motivated to do them on their own.


But if you really want scientists to be turbocharged and do basic science, the way to do that isn’t to have university science, is to have private science, to have biotech companies pair with professors as they’re doing their research. Indeed, the biotech revolution was started in this country. So having more patents available did lead to hundreds of billions of dollars of private money pouring into basic science research. So there was a tremendous amount of value from having that.


But what was missed, what was overlooked in that rush to privatize was one of the hidden rules of ownership, which is that too much ownership can be as costly as too little. So we ended up with, in the ’90s and the last several decades, is having way, way more patents, way more ownership of upstream or basic, the basic tools that you need to do science. But that’s led to actually fewer pills in bottles, fewer downstream, fewer actual treatments for disease, because all those upstream owners in certain areas block each other.


They each want to get a share of the profits from the ultimate treatment. If everybody wants the full profits from that treatment, there’s no deal to be made and the resource never gets discovered.


I think one of the bigger questions around ownership lately, that’s been top of mind for people like me is NFTs. Like what do you actually own with an NFT? Why is this a phenomenon now? I feel like it signals a lot about our culture, but I’ve never really thought about it from an ownership perspective. What does an NFT mean about our beliefs about ownership, especially since you could argue the most valuable NFTs are the ones that have been already the most consumed by our culture?


Just to explain to your listeners, an NFT stands for a non-fungible token. Your Bitcoin or your Ethereum, those are fungible tokens. One Bitcoin’s the same as any other one. A non-fungible token, an NFT, is a unique identifier. It uses the same blockchain technology that Bitcoin does. But it uniquely identifies something out in the world. What that thing often is, is some digital image. Could be the Beeple image that sold for $69 million, or LeBron dunking from an NBA top shot image.


And then NFT says, “I, the owner of this NFT,” on the quote unquote… I’m putting this in air quotes for your listeners, “The original of that image.” Now, all of us right now can go and download the Beeple image, or the LeBron dunk. One of the things about online art is that it’s exactly perfectly copyable down to the pixel. There’s one original Mona Lisa and a lot of college dorm posters. For online art, every image is exactly identical to every other one.


This has meant that online art has been one of our most democratic and innovative spheres of artistic endeavor. What NFTs do is they basically are designed, I think, are laser targeted on killing the creativity and value of digital art. For me, what NFTs do is bring together the worst of art and the worst of blockchain. They’re enormously energy consuming to prove that this is the original, all for the purpose of making art worse.


What NFTs, I think, emerged from is partly a response to the pandemic. It’s the attempt to impose artificial scarcity. It’s creating the artificial scarcity not for the benefit of art, but for the benefit of a handful of early adopters, the traders who got in first. Here would be my question for those of you who are thinking about investing in NFTs. Is there a secondary market for NFTs? That is, does anybody buy a used NFT?


The answer I believe is going to be that we’re not going to see that kind of secondary market. And I worry about being the person left holding the bag when this NFT market collapses, which I believe it will.


Yeah. Talking about things born of the pandemic, I want to know how you guys have seen the pandemic possibly change our thinking around ownership, or forced questions around ownership. One thing that came to mind for me was a lot of companies are asking their employees slowly to start coming back to the office. You hear stories about employees saying no in large numbers and putting pressure back on their employers.


It raises this question of, who owns or how do you own the employee’s time? What are you seeing either in there, in that example, or anywhere, anything that’s happened in the pandemic, that shows pressure or change around our ideas of ownership?


Well, part of it, I think, you can see in the commercial real estate market, the idea that do you actually, if you’re a company, do you have to own physical space for your employees to get together? I think there’s going to be, as these leases end over the next few years, there’s going to be a real shake-out, I think of what commercial real estate even looks like.


I mean, I’m seeing with law firms right now, they’re moving to shared office spaces. In a sense, you get this Tuesday, Wednesday, the other person gets it Monday, Thursday. Someone else gets it Friday. So this notion that we have to have this communal meeting place in very high-price location, I think is up for grabs. Now, as we said a number of times in this shift to the virtual economy, something is lost. I feel for young professors who are just starting to teach right now because they’re not making personal connections.


I mean, Michael and I met at a workshop I don’t know how many years ago in Montana, and that formed this lifelong friendship. That wouldn’t have happened if we had basically been relating to each other via zoom. So some something is lost. But my view is the whole notion of the workspace as something that a company has to own because they’re a company, I think that’s up in the air.


When I look at the way you guys describe ownership. I see it as an image of resources going into the hands of many to the hands of the few, then back to the many hands. It just feels like ownership moves resources in the world between the many and the few. I think that’s what’s happening on a cultural level when it comes to work, because you’re seeing more and more things where employee groups, activists, and playgroups, like what happens at Google pretty often, where people arise up and say, “Hey, we don’t appreciate this part of corporate culture.”


When the pandemic happened and Google was treating their full-time employees and their contract employees very differently, like two classes of employees, full-time employees stood up and protested that and they caused change. It’s why we’re seeing a lot of unions forming too in a lot of places that you wouldn’t expect, like in the tech world. It feels like they are working to take culture back from the corporation, like, “You don’t get to determine the corporate culture here. We get to determine it.” I see ownership changing on the social plane like that.


One change or one deep battle in the world of the corporation and corporate culture, is who the corporation ultimately is intended to serve. In the last generations, we’ve moved, in this country, very strongly towards a stockholder value model of who owns the company. Who is the ultimate owner? It’s the people who’ve got the leftover money, the people who have the leftover money after salaries are paid and after rent is paid, and those are the stockholders.


The theory of the American corporation has largely been the theory of the stockholder owner. And there’s been real pushback against that, which I think the pandemic is highlighting. The move towards more employees’ say and what their workspace looks like is a different model of ownership. Sometimes it’s called a stakeholder model. That’s been much more of the model in Europe historically. In Europe, a lot of decision-making around the flow of work that affects workers is made by a council that includes both representatives from the management and representatives from labor. So they decide together.


You’re beginning to see more of that in this country as well. Not that long ago, a new form of company was created called a B corporation, a benefit corporation. You sometimes see a little B on the side of your organic milk bottle. That’s a new form, a new structure of ownership where the company is explicitly committing to a stakeholder model, to a model that concerns neighbors, and workers, and the community, and the planet, along with the residual shareholders.


What we’ve seen in the world of corporations of series of shifts, historically, from old British shipping companies that were organized a certain way 15, 16, 1700s, up through the stock corporation. Now you’re seeing versions of corporations that have more attention to employee concerns. You see that with employee stock-owned companies, ESOPs, they’re called. You see that with cooperatives, companies. There’s been a lot of, for example, dairy farmers are organized in cooperatives.


You see that in benefit corporations. But you also see that even in the core American corporation, the Exxons and the Googles, that are having to compete in an environment where ownership of the firm has a range of models. They have to compete for employees against firms that have a different notion from the stock notion. That is part of what creates the pressure to be more responsive to the ownership of our most valuable resource, the most valuable resource that each of us has, which is our time and attention, like what we do during our day.


People are beginning to realize that they’re often selling that out too cheaply and giving up too much control compared to the life they actually want to lead. That sense of like, “What does your day look like? What does your work day look like?” That’s structured entirely by the ownership rules of the workplace that you’re a part of.


Something that keeps coming up for me is, what comes first? Does culture change first and then the law is an output of that, or does the law change first and then culture adapts? Especially when I think of things like the experience economy, which I think was coined over 20 years ago now. As millennials started to focus more on experiences over ownership of things, and this was well-documented and we de-emphasized the value of ownership.


Then you start to see new models like the sharing economy, like what is it? Is it the chicken or the egg, especially in the digital world where you have companies that are basically playing in the clay of the law unhindered because there’s no government interception there. What do you think the order of this is?


It’s an excellent question. The answer’s both. In many instances, law reinforces and reflects norms and customs, and that’s why the law usually… We know usually what the law is, actually. And it’s not because we studied statutes. It’s because we know that’s just the way we operate. However, laws are written by legislators, and legislators can be influenced. And so, there are a lot of examples. We talk about them in the book in terms of how copyright extension keeps going on and on and on and on. The lawmakers, I want to say, bought and sold, but lawmakers can be influenced, and they’re setting these rules.


For example, turns out there are separate rules for if you’re super wealthy, or if you’re not. If you’re super wealthy, you put your money in South Dakota because South Dakota’s legislators have essentially been told, “These are the rules the super wealthy want in order to park their money there.” We don’t know about it. What you want to call it, the chicken or the egg, is up to you, but that’s the model of basically the rules of ownership being written by very few for their specific benefit. And there are a lot of stories like that.


Then there are the other stories, the basic reflect, first come first serve, possession’s nine-tenths of the law, aphorisms that we learn as small kids, and then by and large tend to be reflected in the rules that we have around us.


I would push back a little bit against your question as well, the notion that younger folks are done with ownership and they’re all about sharing. Oh, that’s not right. That’s very much what the sharing economy companies want you to believe. But the truth is not that we’re at the end of ownership. What we have moved to in this country is the hyper concentration of ownership. When you’re streaming something, it’s a handful of companies that control access to those resources, whether it’s Rent the Runway for a wedding dress, or your Uber or Lyft, or Apple or on Amazon.


What we’re seeing is the hyper concentration of the ownership of the resource and the control and the decision-making around that resource. And then the giving out some little twigs and branches and little bits and little leaves of ownership license to you. But it’s a license that they can pull back and they can say, “You can’t have this book anymore. We’re not going to offer it anymore. No, you don’t pay your bill, all your photos disappear.”


So it’s not the end of ownership. It’s the end of you having ownership. What you have is a stream of services so long as you can continue to pay.


A big question that I had in my head while I was reading the book was, what do you guys think about suspending vaccine patents?


This is the long-standing debate. I work in the environmental field and you can go back to the 1980s when the ozone hole was a huge concern. These companies like DuPont were developing these refrigerants, chemicals that would still run your air conditioner and your aerosols and such, and your freezers, but that didn’t destroy the ozone layer. A treaty was developed to address that. One of the sticking points was, should those patents be shared on a non-commercial basis with other countries, with developing countries?


The treaty kicked the can down the road. The companies basically said, “Hey, we’re not charities. We have business models that we have to meet.” Same thing with climate change. Renewable energy technologies. There’s other low-emission technologies. Shouldn’t we make them much more available, much cheaper, much more accessible to developing countries? It’s the exact same conflict. It’s the same thing we see right now. With the COVID vaccine, it’s not clear they’ve lost. Biden said this should happen. It’s not clear what’s going to happen.


But this is the first time that they’ve really been challenged seriously in the United States on this. Internationally, it’s always with environmental, India, Brazil, China, to a degree saying, “Give us these technologies on a preferential basis. You want us to help prevent ozone depletion, you want us to help battle climate change? Okay. But help us.” Companies, US, European, say, “Not so fast. That’s not our job.”


This goes back a long time in the biomedical patent area as well, when retrovirals were discovered to treat AIDS. They were very expensive and AIDS activists said, “Those patents should be available to everyone on a non-commercial basis. No one should be dying of AIDS anymore.” The pharmaceutical companies were able to fight it off and a lot of people died. The overall American patent system is mostly wealth destroying.


When you talk to Elon Musk about his patents on all his incredible space gizmos, he says, “I have no patents.” He hasn’t patented anything. He’s like, “If we patent it, people just copy it.” For Tesla, for his electrical car patents, he says, “I want GM and Ford to use them. They all can use them for free.” He doesn’t use his patents as a way to block. “We need to move to a electric car economy, and I’m going to make my patents available for that.”


Overall, the patent system basically lets you create a fence, like remember barbed wire where we started the conversation. Patents are the barbed wire of the intellectual property world. Keep a fence to keep people out. For the most part, they actually destroy wealth in this country. If we basically eliminated patents altogether, America would be much wealthier. There’s one area where potentially patents actually do create wealth, and that is in pharmaceutical patents, because it takes so many hundreds of millions of dollars to create a drug to get through the FDA pipeline, to prove that it’s safe.


And then, once you create it, you can reproduce it for a penny a pill. If you had no patents or no protection for pharmaceutical patents, you wouldn’t have any reason to invest to create them in the first place. That’s the justification for the patent system as a whole. And then, particularly, it makes sense in the pill area. That counts against President Biden’s move, to some extent.


But I’m skeptical in this particular context, and for a couple of reasons. One is that most of what it takes to make these drugs is really deep technical know-how. The patent itself is disclosed. That isn’t particularly hard to reproduce. But they wouldn’t have the know-how to prove these very, very complicated drugs. Even that company in Baltimore that was producing the vaccines and wasn’t able to do it properly. That was a very high tech company and it was having a hard time.


So this is an area where the patents are somewhat overrated. The patent isn’t the real protections. Protection is the know-how that these firms have for producing these very, very sophisticated RNA drugs. But the notion that we should be able to patent a lot of very basic technology around biomedicine should be more controversial in this country than it is. And it is very controversial in a global perspective, and it’s a conversation we really haven’t been having.


On the sky is falling concern of the pharmaceutical companies that you hear around, if you lift the patents for the COVID drugs, research will grind to a halt, I don’t believe that that’s true.


Ultimately, why are there only six rules of ownership? Why aren’t there more? Why these six? Do they really cover everything?


We’ve been talking about this book with law professors and students for many years. We always actually ask that question as well. And so far, no one’s told us otherwise. We are the gurus of ownership. There’s a bunch of people teaching this stuff, but we would count ourselves among the people who thought about this. This is what our careers are largely about. We think back in history. We think what the online world is going to look like.


Ownership looks very different in different cultures. There’s tribal cultures, there’s customary cultures. There’s more social welfare, European legal systems versus America. There’s lots of differences around ownership around the world. But even with all those differences, you’re still, it turns out, fighting among those same six simple stories. The original claim to ownership seems to trace all the way back and all the way forward. So far as we can see.


That isn’t an absolute claim. It can’t be. The world can change in ways that we can’t predict. But looking in our crystal ball and looking back through a historical lens, pretty much it reduces down to that and every ownership battle that we can look at, and that’s everything. That’s every ownership battle that as you’re walking down the street, as you are thinking about climate change, as you’re thinking about wealth inequality in America, who owns your online life, or who owns your genetic data, it’s the same few stories that pop up again and again and again.


I think, actually, as Michael said, I’ll be surprised if a seventh pops up. I think it’s actually hardwired. I mean, I think it’s no coincidence that many of the great cultures creation myths, try ownership. The Greeks, Prometheus steals fire from Mount Olympus. Garden of Eden, the fruit. It’s not yours, but they take it and they’re evicted literally from the garden. And so, I think that, basically, we’re clearly hardwired to care about ownership. And ultimately, the stories that are in play are remarkably, remarkably few.


Looking back at all of this, you’ve written the book. Your careers have been dedicated to this. On a gut level, looking at the world through these six lenses of ownership, how do you feel about where we’re going?


I think that our culture with ownership is essentially where we were 500 years ago, a thousand years ago, and 3,000 years ago. Whenever there’s scarce resources and more people want them than there are to go around, there are going to be competing stories. Whether it was in Babylonia, or Sumeria, or Victorian England, or 21st century America, it’s a small number of stories that are taking place. And the question always is going to be, which story is more persuasive? And how are we going to decide which story is more persuasive? That really, to me, is the story of the human condition. Ownership, to me, is timeless.


Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Unseen Unknown. If you’re new here and like what you’re listening to, do us a favor and leave a review. Those reviews mean a lot and help our audience grow. Don’t forget, you can always get more of our brand strategy and culture articles, videos, podcasts, everything, at While you’re there, you can also sign up for our awesome newsletter that will deliver valuable thinking to your inbox twice a month. Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time.

Interesting Links & More Reading


19: Systems In Flux: Birth of the New Spiritual Consumer

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin

For the fourth and final episode in our series on Systems In Flux, we’re talking about seemingly new emerging forms of spirituality, and how new spiritual brands are positioning themselves to take advantage of our collective movement towards wanting to be both categorized but at the same time free from conventional binary definitions.

Everything is being catered more and more to us as individuals—and religion seems to be shifting in that direction, too. Part of that shift is the way we understand what religion is in the first place, and our youngest generations are pushing us further toward newly remixed ideas of spirituality that borrow from a wide range of traditions.

Allegra Hobbs is a journalist who’s explored the phenomenon of the Enneagram. The Enneagram is a newly-revived derivative of the teachings of the Bolivian-born philosopher, Oscar Ichazo, that practitioners believe can lead to improved self-awareness.

She found that the Enneagram and other categorizing devices like it have also seemingly crossed over into the mainstream because we find ourselves in a perpetual state of isolation and alienation—something Rachel Lo discovered as she developed the dating app Struck, which helps match people based on their astrological signs.

This episode explores what these new forms of spirituality mean and how they’ve come into the mainstream with the emergence of a new spiritual consumer, and while discussions about spirituality can be challenging for a number of reasons, our conversations ended up revealing surprising potential implications for equity and inclusion in everything from how we find meaningful relationships to how we conceptualize our work.

Podcast Transcript

MAY 13, 2021

60 min read

Systems In Flux: Birth of the New Spiritual Consumer


Welcome to Unseen Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina. For the fourth and final episode in our series on Systems In Flux, we’re talking about seemingly new emerging forms of spirituality and how new spiritual brands are positioning themselves to take advantage of our collective movement towards wanting to be both categorized but at the same time, wanting to be free from conventional binary definitions.

Everything is being catered more and more to us as individuals and religion seems to be shifting in that direction, too. Part of that shift is the way we understand what religion is in the first place. And our youngest generations are pushing us further toward newly remixed ideas of spirituality that borrow from a wide range of traditions. Allegra Hobbs is a journalist who’s explored the phenomenon of the Enneagram.


The Enneagram is a newly revived derivative of the teachings of Bolivian-born philosopher Oscar Ichazo that practitioners believe can lead to improved self-awareness. She found that Enneagram and other categorizing devices like it have also seemingly crossed over into the mainstream because we find ourselves in a professional state of isolation and alienation—something Rachel Lo discovered as she developed the dating app Struck, which helps match people based on their astrological signs.

This episode explores what these new forms of spirituality mean, and how they’ve come into the mainstream with the emergence of a new spiritual consumer. And while discussions about spirituality can be challenging for a number of reasons, our conversations ended up revealing surprising potential implications for equity and inclusion in everything from how we find meaningful relationships to how we conceptualize our work. First, Allegra breaks down the history for us. What is an Enneagram anyway? And how did it capture the imagination of some of the world’s most powerful leaders and institutions today?


So, the Enneagram as it is currently used is a system of typing people into nine basic personality types. And you are dominant in one. That does not mean that that is all you are, you theoretically contain parts of each personality, but you’re only dominant in one type. And that type is all about what fundamentally motivates you.


What is the core motivating factor? So it is not based on behavior, you cannot tell a person’s type based on the way they behave. It is all about what motivates them at a fundamental level. So for example, I am Type Four or dominant in Type Four. And my core motivation is, according to the system, to establish an identity for myself.


So I guess when it comes to exploring the history of the Enneagram, it’s important to note that this is all based on a wisdom tradition that serious practitioners will tell you is ancient and somewhat mysterious. Like the exact origins of the wisdom tradition itself are disputed, but we can pretty precisely pinpoint when that wisdom tradition started to become the personality typing system that is in use today.



There was a philosopher named Oscar Ichazo, who was the leader of a non-religious human potentialist movement that was based in Chile in the 1970s. He crafted the Enneagram into a system for understanding how essence, which he posits is perfect and in oneness with the cosmos, becomes distorted into what we would call our personalities, which are the nine types. It’s not that you’re your personality, it’s that your personality is kind of a mask, or is this distortion of your core essence. So the work of the Enneagram is all about tearing down that personality to get back to the core of who you are, so learning your type is the start of the journey and not the end in itself.


So he kind of started with that philosophy and established these nine types. His work was then expounded on by a student of his named Claudio Naranjo. And then some Americans came to Chile, discovered the system, they passed it on to a group of Jesuits in the United States. And that is how it came into the hands of a Franciscan friar named Richard Rohr, kind of known for his work in meditation and quiet contemplation. He has kind of a retreat in New Mexico. And then he wrote the  first book about the Enneagram from a Christian perspective in 1990. And it was literally called The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective. So this is something that’s kind of been out there for a few decades in the Christian world, but not anywhere near mainstream. But Rohr kind of became the entry point for a lot of other Christians who were curious about the system.


One of them was Suzanne Stabile and she was a pastor’s wife. She journeyed to Rohr’s center where he was teaching the Enneagram. She absorbs the wisdom of the Enneagram and she co-wrote a book with an Episcopal Priest named Ian Morgan Cron called, The Road Back To You. And it was published in late 2016. And that was the book that changed everything.


It’s interesting that that book is called The Road Back To You because the words read like self-help to me.


And I know that you’ve written that a lot of people who have really embraced the Enneagram, Christian or otherwise, they tend to be quite young. They are into self care and wellness. They are open to therapy, possibly astrology, things like that. You talked about Christianity, the Christian system, which you’ve written posits that, “We are inherently flawed,” but you’re describing the Enneagram system is we are inherently perfect. And our personalities kind of mask that perfection. I’m sensing a tension between these two systems, or I guess you could even call them brands. Is there a tension there?



There is a tension between the Enneagram and a certain strain of Christianity. And I think that’s important to specify because whether or not the Enneagram comes into conflict with Christianity, kind of depends on who you ask, because there are many ways of practicing the faith of Christianity. But what I did find is that the way American evangelicalism is often practiced can be traced back to the teachings of John Calvin, a philosopher out of the Protestant Reformation.


And he taught a doctrine called total depravity, which is pretty much what it sounds like, which is that every effort by a human being is tainted by sin. And it is only through faith that we escape our fate of eternal damnation. So here’s a quote from John Calvin that I cited in my piece. “Our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil that it can never be idle. The whole man from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot is so deluged, as it were, that no part remains exempt from sin, and, therefore, everything which proceeds from him is imputed as sin.”


If you look at American evangelicalism, it stems from this Calvinist teaching and this Calvinist understanding of sin nature and human nature. So there is a sense among a lot of American evangelicals that, “You are bad at the core, and it is only through the grace of God that you even have a hope of salvation, but any efforts that you personally make to better yourself are fundamentally flawed because we’re sinful at our core.” What the Enneagram teaches is that at your core, is this kind of perfect essence. 

Oscar Ichazo believes that we are in essence, in perfect oneness with the cosmos and that we become distorted and lose that perfection when we fall from essence into ego. So the Enneagram is a significant departure from that kind of Calvinist American evangelicalism which is still pretty prominent because it teaches you that you can, through your own efforts, work your way back to this fundamental goodness at your core.


When you contrast that with this message that, “You’re bad, bad, bad, that you’re sinful at your core, and you need to move away from yourself,” it’s really striking.


Why do you think this has entered the spiritual mainstream at this point? Because this is quite recent, it’s been around for a long time, but like you said, in 2016, it was a turning point and it feels like more of a movement now than anything else. Why do you think that is?


Yeah. I think that for one, something I’ve found in reporting this piece, there is a trend of younger Christians who are really jaded by the showy megachurch type of Christianity. These charismatic pastors holding religious services in sporting arenas. It strikes a lot of younger people as disingenuous. And so there’s actually a really interesting trend of younger Christians moving towards more liturgical traditions and being more open to meditative practices and quiet contemplation, and the Enneagram kind of falls in line with those trends.


If you look at it the way it’s supposed to be followed and supposed to be studied, the Enneagram is practiced as this life long journey to better understand yourself and your place in the world. It’s very serious work to the people who practice it. And it is often taught in tandem with quiet contemplation. That’s the way that Franciscan friar Richard Rohr taught it.


So when you look at it that way, it’s kind of an intentional departure from the more surface level glitzy, aesthetic brand of Christianity if that makes sense. The other thing, the evangelical world is more open to influences outside of the explicitly Christian, which is a fairly new phenomenon. If you look at the history of evangelicalism in America, you see a resistance to things like yoga, which some believed was satanic. You see the Harry Potter books were kind of approached with fear and trepidation and kind of moral panic because evangelicals believed that it would impart witchcraft and on a more serious note, the evangelical church has been exclusionary and even outright hostile to marginalized groups that it felt were not in line with their moral teachings specifically the LGBT community. All of that has changed in recent years.


As I was surveying this, and even my personal experience with Enneagram and talking to some of the people that I know, a lot of people are introduced to the Enneagram through totally non-religious routes. You could easily embrace this and never feel, or know about the religious context. What are some of the spectrum of brands that have emerged around the Enneagram from religious to non-religious that might give us an idea of just how big this is?


Yeah. So the first example that comes to mind and the most prominent kind of in the influencer brand sphere is definitely Sarajane Case. And she runs an Instagram account called EnneagramAndCoffee. At the time I wrote my piece, she had half a million followers. That’s pretty significant for this little kind of personality typing system that a few years ago was relatively unknown. 

And she kind of has built herself into a brand around the Enneagram, if that makes sense. Her Instagram account is quite personal. It trades both in serious spiritual work and advice for people who are looking to explore the Enneagram and fun, more topical means that are Enneagram adjacent if that makes sense.


A lot of this does in fact, live on Instagram. There’s one Instagram account that I find funny called Rude Ass Enneagram. It’s mostly screenshots from TV shows that people love like New Girl. And it’s kind of like, for example, it will show what character, maybe what type, or it’ll have memes using screen grabs or quotes from these TV shows, making fun of each Enneagram type in a good natured way.



And that’s the kind of content that people online who are into the Enneagram seem to like, and there’s a lot of accounts along those lines. Sarajane’s is a little bit more earnest if that makes sense, because I asked her, there are some people who are serious practitioners of the Enneagram who may view these meme accounts and these brand accounts kind of cynically because for them, this is a serious spiritual practice. When I asked Sarajane, how she reckons with that and how she sees herself fitting into this world, she basically told me that she hopes that her Instagram account will be a starting point for people who are seriously interested in exploring the Enneagram. 

She doesn’t just do the Instagram account to her credit. I mean, she’s kind of launched this whole platform where you can do Enneagram workshops with her and more deeply explore the system if you choose to. So it doesn’t just end at memes.


I saw that she also has a five day summit that looks pretty comprehensive as well. You’ve written in the past that, “To be human is to categorize.” And it’s really obvious when you look at something like the Enneagram or astrology, but where else do we see this kind of need to categorize in our everyday lives?


Yeah, I’d also noticed that beyond personality typing systems that Buzzfeed quizzes are really popular right now. 

People love these deeply individualized and digitized ways to better understand themselves and to do so publicly. And you see that also with the trend of people sorting themselves into Harry Potter house, like if you look at a Harry Potter fan’s Twitter account, it’s not uncommon to have one’s Myers-Brigg type in the bio and then Gryffindor or Slytherin or Ravenclaw or whatever. 


Right, right.



There seems to be a real desire for people to use a shorthand to say, “This is who I am.” And the Enneagram helps build that space in a way. If you’re familiar with the Enneagram and someone tells you, “I’m a Type One,” you immediately have at least the beginning of an understanding of them or what motivates them and the same for Myers-Briggs and the same for Harry Potter Houses and to a lesser degree and in a more, perhaps less serious degree, Buzzfeed quizzes and things of that nature.


So on the serious side of things, I’ve noticed that all kinds of personality typing systems, but also the Enneagram are being used increasingly in a business context. I mean, I was talking to the CEO of a big public company who was telling me that they had just taken their own Enneagram test. They were a little bummed to learn that they were a Type Two or something like that. And it’s just so interesting to me that we’ve seen things like this crossover into business, things that maybe had a religious origin or a non-scientific origin, certainly a non-business origin and they’ve they’ve crossed over and they cross over into so many other parts of our lives too. How does this kind of thing happen? How do we lose the origins of typing systems like these and start applying them in seemingly unrelated places?


Right. I think that with any typing system, and in any mode of spirituality, any strain of spirituality, that kind of crossover is inevitable. Or I don’t want to use the word warping because that has a distinctly negative connotation, but, but it is essentially a warping of the original intention of the thing.


So the Enneagram may be intended as its serious practitioners will tell you to be a serious spiritual discipline that lasts a practitioner’s lifetime and ultimately serve the purpose of allowing you to understand yourself better and to understand your place in the world and how you relate to others better. That is the purpose of the Enneagram. But any time there is an opportunity to do so systems like that will be shoehorned into other purposes. I think that there’s just a real desire to use whatever tools we have in our arsenal to  improve ourselves, improve our workplaces.


I think that modern life can be quite alienating and the current trends for these ultra personalized systems of bettering ourselves or better understanding ourselves, or maybe in response to that. And so I’m not surprised that people are using it in a work context, because I think the modern workplace is a really strange one to navigate. I think that perhaps there is more depersonalization and there’s more remote working and we’re more dependent on technology. I can see how if a manager thought, “This is a way that I could make my team function better and I could improve morale, then I’m going to do it.” And I think that’s why workplaces try to use Myers-Briggs to improve the workplace. And I imagine that’s why they’re using the Enneagram.


When you take a step back to look at all of this, how do you think the new consumer’s sense of spirituality is changing and how will it continue to change into the future?

So a wonderful journalist named Tara Isabella Burton wrote a book called Strange Rites about this new kind of a religious spirituality that she observed taking hold in the culture. She observed the companies that were selling wellness products or fitness dads like SoulCycle were using pseudo-religious language to do so. And so nothing was explicitly religious, but this kind of vague a-religious spirituality was running through all of these things. And she also made a few observations in general about American adults and the kind of consumer that might be interested in these products.



So she found that a quarter of American adults are religiously unaffiliated. And for those born after 1990, that number climbs to almost 40%. She also found that three-quarters of those religiously unaffiliated people still believe in a kind of higher power. And she called these people faithful nones. And then she also found that 27% of Americans consider themselves spiritual, but not religious.



So it’s a weird consumer landscape, right? Because on the one hand, people are becoming less religious, people are attending church in fewer numbers, but on the other, you still see a pretty significant bend towards spirituality and a desire for something deeper. She also observed that people are taking what she calls an intuitionist approach to religion rather than an institutionalist approach. So taking bits and pieces from different traditions that they feel serve them. And so I think you see that with the Enneagram, right? And you see that with the way a lot of young adults now are approaching Christianity. 

You take what serves you, whether it’s astrology, a meditation app, the Enneagram, and you leave the rest. She kind of made the observation that there’s a sense that everything is ultra personalized, catered to the individual and digitized. So you see that in the way your Netflix queue is personalized, you see that in the way that we look for love on Tinder. So there’s this expectation that we should be able to meet our spiritual needs in a similar way. Why would we force our beliefs into this category, into doctrines and creeds that we feel don’t really serve us when we could instead cobble all of these different systems together and walk away with a strain of spirituality that we feel serves as a person?


We have a strong desire to find a shorthand that explains who we are in business and in life. But there’s another interesting place where our new consumption of spirituality is starting to show up and it’s in our dating lives. Rachel Lo is the founder of Struck, a dating app based on astrology. And her work is a perfect example of how our new consumption of spirituality is creating a world of new brands. What’s most interesting however, is how these new brands are opening us up to new kinds of user experiences, regardless of whether you’re a believer or a skeptic.



So our philosophy when we were building the app was authentic human connection. So when I was living in San Francisco after college, I used basically every dating app under the sun. And for me, it was actually a decently enjoyable experience. I met a lot of cool people, I made some friends, I dated a couple people, but I noticed that my friends didn’t have the same experience. And what really felt like it was lacking was this lack of authenticity when they were meeting new people on dating apps.

And something I realized was that through my growing interest in astrology, I found that my conversations with friends and even strangers around astrology were often so much deeper than random conversations about your job or what you did this weekend, which is usually the bulk of the conversations you have on dating apps. And so I felt like there was this really amazing opportunity to combine the two and help people just connect that much more deeply, that much more quickly through the vocabulary of astrology.



I think that’s really fascinating and something that maybe people miss it first, just as you described it, the fact that if you approach dating through an astrology lens, it seems to kind of force a different level of authenticity you don’t normally get on a dating app. And I think I’ve even seen this in your interviews where you say that you see astrology is a great tool for speaking about your emotions in a language that a lot of us weren’t taught to communicate in. What did you mean by that? What is that language?



What astrology does, I kind of call it “therapy with training wheels.” What it does is it just provides this existing framework and existing language that people feel is a lot more approachable than something like therapy. I don’t think it’s a direct substitution, I don’t think astrology can completely displace something like therapy, but I do think having those pre-existing words and phrases is really helpful, like saying, “I have a tendency to think about myself a little too much at times because I’m a Leo,” right?

Just acknowledging that fact, I think wouldn’t normally happen in conversation. And one thing I love to talk about is even people who are skeptics, even someone who is adamant that astrology is fake and not empirical, you can still have a really good conversation with that person if you use astrology as the tool.


So an example of that is I might say to a die hard engineer, “Hey look, you have in your chart that you’re a Mercury in Cancer. So you might cry a lot. You’re very soft-spoken, you might be passive aggressive,” and they go, “Wow, that is so wrong. I’m actually extremely assertive. I don’t cry. I express myself in a very assertive way.” At that point, you still had a conversation about how that person views themselves, how they communicate. And that, again, wouldn’t normally happen if you didn’t have this framework or the pretense of astrology there.


That’s so interesting. So obviously it’s forcing these more intimate conversations. I tried the app and I found that for some reason it felt more intimate. It felt familiar, not the app itself, but the people as I was going through my matches and understanding how their astrological profiles fit into the identity or who I was looking at. I think I could fall in the diehard engineered camp. Right? But I’m not above seeing the tremendous value in starting these dating conversations from a really emotional place.

I’m just curious, how are people using the app? Are you seeing any interesting behaviors or are you seeing them move in a certain way that they wouldn’t in other dating contexts?


Yeah. So what we see is that the people who come onto our app are sort of self-selecting to begin with, right? They tend to be more open-minded, tend to be more empathetic, tend to be more heart on their sleeve in some ways, because they are willing to put it out there that they’re into astrology and they have XYZ traits about them. Another thing that we developed into the app was forcing people to choose their priorities. And that it doesn’t really even have a lot to do with astrology, but we were writing this idea that again, those people who are into astrology are more self-aware or at least more introspective and would be more willing to interrogate what it is in life that they want. 

And so these are categories like financial stability, which is a huge driver for some people and not at all for other people or spending time with family, which I know sounds crazy for those people who are really close with their families, but for some people that really isn’t a priority either. And so we wanted to force those conversations upfront as well. And so I think that’s a lot of where this sense of familiarity comes from is these people are amazing users just being really open and honest about who they are and craving that more authentic connection too.


Something else I was kind of struck by was… At least with my matches, they seemed like a very diverse crowd of people. All kinds of different jobs, all kinds of different backgrounds and stories. And I think in my one data point anecdotal experience, I didn’t see that on other dating apps when I was actually dating in the past. Do you think that’s unique to your app and is it part of a function of how you’ve built this thing?


Yes, absolutely. And I am so glad you said that, it’s something I take a lot of pride in. So the team that built the app is incredibly diverse by Silicon Valley standards and just corporate standards in general. It was mostly women and a lot of women of color, a lot of women who built the app. I say a lot, but there weren’t that many of us anyway. 

But proportionally, we made up the whole team. So I think when you have a diverse team building a product, it’s inherently going to be serving a diverse population. So, that’s something we’re really proud of. I also think there’s something about astrology that’s really powerful for people who feel overlooked, which obviously tends to be underrepresented people, minorities, that kind of thing.


So I think there’s a real reason that people of color and queer communities really are the driving force behind the popularity of astrology. And I don’t think they get enough credit for that either. And I think it’s that astrology makes you feel really seen in a way that you might not be seen in a predominantly white community that you’re used to growing up in.

So to answer your question, I think astrology kind of self filters for that type of person. And one thing anecdotally, we’ve heard from some of our users is, this is the first dating app a lot of people have used, which is interesting because you think in today’s world everyone’s tried a dating app at least once. But it sounds like for a lot of people, this aligns more with what they want to get out of a dating app. And so they’re finally willing to take that leap and try it out, which is really amazing and sort of bolstering to hear.


When you said the word ‘seen,’ that was the exact word in my mind too. And I’m curious to know what your experience was growing up and how that influenced the way that you created Struck.


Yeah, absolutely. So I grew up in an extremely secular household and I think part of that is my parents immigrated maybe already having that mentality to some degree. And that’s part of why they immigrated thinking that America was this amazing equalizer kind of country. But I also think that part of it may have stemmed from them wanting to assimilate more quickly. And they felt that by embedding themselves in the science culture of the US that would be a way for their kids to assimilate more quickly. So I was raised like super, super science focused. Actually studied mechanical engineering, material science at Berkeley. So I have a very, not just technical background, but technical rooted in the physical world. The exact opposite probably of something like astrology. For a long time I rejected any sort of spirituality because I felt like there was such a bias against that. Buddhism and those types of religions, if you want to call it a religion we’re the butt of jokes for a long time when we were growing up.

And I think now it’s a little bit more in Vogue and so it’s easy to forget that kind of thing, but I really didn’t want to be seen as this Chinese kid who went to the temple and prayed with incense to my ancestors. Right?


Because that was just such a foreign thing to people, but basically long story short, in my mid 20s, I had sort of a quarter-life crisis of identity, which I think a lot of people did, especially around the 2016 election. And suddenly I think a lot of especially first generation immigrant kids were like, “Wait, I’m not white actually.” And I know I had that experience too, and it just really shook things up for me. And I realized how much I had been sort of forcibly and actively suppressing that side of my cultural heritage in favor of almost using science as a religion which I could talk forever about.


Yeah. Well, also just being a kid and not having a model for living between these two different identities, it’s a lot. Of course, it makes sense to just choose the one that is being offered to you. And a lot of people would relate to that. So let me ask you when the Indian Matchmaking [show] came out and I think all of us had this awakening to like, “Wow, astrology is so fundamental to so many ancient cultures.” I think we started to see it a little differently. We were all home-bound anyways, and that was the one week where we all watched on Netflix. What happens for you and the app? Did you guys see anything? Was there any new interest in Struck?


That’s such a funny question. First of all, I do want to acknowledge, of course I glossed over that obviously South Asia is still hugely important for astrology. They practice Vedic Astrology, which is a little bit different, but I would say probably in the modern world, they take astrology maybe the most seriously as a culture and a society. As far as the show, I know the show is very divisive as well in the South Asian community from the people I’ve spoken to. So also acknowledge that, but in the context of Struck, what’s really funny is we had obviously been developing this app for months and months at this point. And when Indian Matchmaking came out, we actually went semi-viral in India.

Oh wow.


A bunch of articles were written about us. But they were saying things like we were copying Sima Aunty. They were saying that we built the app to ride this wave of Indian Matchmaking, which was a really interesting take. I can see why they might’ve thought that, but it was just kind of a funny anecdote. So there’s a decent number of people in India I think that actually know that we exist. We had requests from people in India, which I was surprised about for us to launch there, because from what I’ve heard from a lot of younger Indian people… And this is very, very generalized and very anecdotal, but from some of my friends and people who have reached out, I was under the impression that the younger generation was a little bit more skeptical. And as younger generations do, they always want to reject what their parents were into or believed. So I was surprised to see that we did get some demand there as well.


Yeah. You mentioned that you have interest in other countries. Are there any other places where people are reaching out and asking you for the app?


Oh yes, absolutely. So Latin America is a huge, huge astrology center. So…If you haven’t seen Mucho Mucho Amor on Netflix, I can’t plug that film enough. It’s a documentary about this amazing astrologer Walter Mercado, who did a lot of work to bring astrology to the mainstream. So Latin America has been huge. Also Europe and Australia have been really big requests as well. And I think that’s just a side effect of the growing popularity of astrology in sort of the Western world for the same reasons that it’s becoming popular in the States.


Right. So let’s talk about the brand for a bit. I kept thinking as I was researching before this call, how you were able to build a brand that really honored what astrology is, but still made room for your tagline which says, “Skeptics welcome.” What were some of the brand decisions that you made that helped you find that balance?


Yeah, definitely. I think at its best astrology can be this really welcoming tool for connecting people for all the reasons we’ve talked about. And I think what it boils down to is just like a culture and a brand that’s built on top of respect. So I really believe that people with different views and opinions can get along with one another, as long as there’s a mutual respect between the two. We welcome people who are skeptical with open arms for the reasons I said earlier, which is that you don’t necessarily need to believe in astrology to reap some of the benefits of astrology so long as you are not going to be a person who puts down other people who do believe in it. As long as you’re willing to have a dialogue and listen to what that person has to say and are respectful of their thoughts and opinions, I think there’s definitely room for people like that on our platform.

Why do you think we’re in a place right now as a culture where astrology and so many other ancient systems are getting mainstream acceptance? Why do you think that’s happening right now?


That’s such a loaded question and I love it because I talk so much with my friends. One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about is the idea of subjectivity. And something I find really refreshing about astrology when you actually talk to those in the know, including professional astrologers, they consider astrology just as much art as it is science, right? So there’s often this false argument happening from the science side of things where they’re saying, “This is not an empirical science, so therefore it’s not real,” et cetera. And from the astrology side, I’ve heard the argument… Well, there’s not really an argument against that. It’s just an ability to embrace this thing that does have subjectivity involved, just like art does. Right?


And as far as, why now, I think collectively, especially we’re seeing this in Gen Z, like we’re realizing that binaries don’t exist and I know some people might roll their eyes at that, but I really think that’s true.

As someone who grew up very invested in science, I had some realizations like the idea of Schrodinger’s Cat, which if you don’t know what that means, it’s basically the idea that you have this metaphorical or theoretical cat in a box and you close the box, is the cat alive or dead? Well, it’s actually both dead and alive in coexistence at the same time. And if you told that to someone like a really young kid they’d be like, “What? That is insane,” right? It’s such a weirdly faith-based argument for a very scientific concept. So I think we realize now science isn’t black and white, medicine is not black and white. Medicine has so many subjectivities and biases built into it.

Science has biases built into it as well. And so I think we’re entering a world where things are just much more nuanced on the whole. 

So Gen Z is like, “Gender’s a construct.” A lot of Gen Z believes that nobody’s truly straight, right? Everyone’s a little bit heteroflexible or queer or whatever the case is. So I think we’re just at the beginning of that, right? It feels like with 2020 in our rear view mirror, we’re really headed in a new direction.



So I think where a lot of this conversation is coming to is, you look at a lot of people in our generation who feel like they’re scientifically minded like myself, but also embrace spiritual things that maybe don’t seem to jive with that scientific mindset. So this idea of like two seemingly opposite things existing in the same person, two very different truths existing in the same person. I think a lot of us carry that within us. Where do you think that’s coming from?



I really think that’s kind of this fundamental human thing. I used to wonder the same thing, honestly about really devout Christians who were scientists, because I was like, “How can you hold these two things at the same time?” But this is really nothing new. I mean, even if you look at the development of modern psychology as one example, Carl Jung was a noted fan of astrology and even he had this idea of synchronicity. It’s this idea of meaningful coincidences. So even though he was in cahoots with Freud and these other guys who were building this new branch of science and medicine, he was very insistent that there are coincidences in our world that kind of go beyond just pure statistical chance. And he didn’t really know what to chalk that up to, but he called it synchronicity and just said, “There are these in our lives that we can’t ignore that have some meaning in them.”


And the last thing I’ll say, I actually was having a really amazing conversation last night with another founder. And I think he typically would skew sort of on the skeptic side of things, but we were talking about astrology and he said, “I’m a very mathematical person and I’ve had a lot of conversations about astrology.


And while I may not believe every piece of it, what I’ve basically decided is that astrology and a lot of these…” Maybe he wouldn’t say synchronicities, but he was basically describing synchronicity. So, “A lot of these meaningful coincidences are things that we as human beings with all of our flaws have just not discovered yet, right? There’s this truth that we only know as much as we know, and people are absolutely very far from perfect, and we have so much to discover.” And he was saying that he felt astrology may point to some of these truths that we just haven’t discovered yet. And I really liked that.

So coming back to the app, now that you’ve created this world that really lets people see themselves, it lets people connect in a different way. It started a very different kind of conversation. It’s tapped into a sea change that may have already been happening in people. Where do you see the brand going?

Yeah, I mean, for us, what’s really important is to continue to make people feel welcome no matter what their background is. And you kind of spoke on the diversity of the users on the app, and we want to definitely keep that going. We want people to feel welcome on our app where they may not feel welcomed elsewhere. And I think we want to continue honoring where astrology comes from and its roots because they do go so far back and we owe it to so many people that came before us for getting us to this point. And so as a brand, I think those are really important principles for us.


And ultimately that same underlying thread that started this project is something I don’t want to let go of, which is trying to improve the authenticity of the connections that we make, because we are at a point where people are just so depressed and anxious and lonely, and it just feels so paradoxical because we have the world at our fingertips. So it’s an ambitious goal, but I want to see if there’s a way where we can reign in what we’ve done this far and bring us back to a place where we can make more of those authentic connections with other people.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Unseen Unknown. If you liked it, go ahead and share it with someone you think would appreciate it. And don’t forget to rate and subscribe too. And a friendly reminder that you can always sign up for our newsletter where you’ll get all of our latest brand strategy thinking, articles, videos, and podcasts. Just go to to subscribe.


Interesting Links & More Reading


18: Systems In Flux: A Unified Theory of Culture, Branding, and Human Behavior

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
For the third episode in our series on Systems In Flux, we’re talking about the invisible systems that make a culture tight or loose, relaxed or rigid. The culture in your state might be loose, while the overall culture of your country may be tight. The culture at your school may be relaxed, but at your fancy gym, is in fact quite rigid. Every single culture and subculture falls along the tight-loose continuum, and it affects people’s perceptions of threat, how they relate to each other, and how they consume. This in turn affects every kind of brand, including international brands, political brands, lifestyle brands, service brands, and CPG.⁣ ⁣ Michele Gelfand is the author of ‘Rule Makers, Rule Breakers’, and her life’s work has been spent researching something extremely fascinating - how tight and loose cultures form in the first place, and if and how they can actually be changed. She’s also one of the most interesting people we’ve had the privilege of interviewing.⁣ Once you understand the concept, it will not only reveal a new perspective on the world of business and branding, it will also reveal the deeper logic beneath the many seemingly illogical things in the world that may have been on your mind lately.⁣

Podcast Transcript

APRIL 28, 2021

60 min read

Systems In Flux: A Unified Theory of Culture, Branding, and Human Behavior


Welcome to Unseen Unknown. I am Jasmine Bina. For the third episode in our series on Systems in Flux, we’re talking about the invisible systems that make a culture tight or loose, relaxed or rigid. The culture in your state might be loose while the overall culture of your country may be tight. The culture at your school may be relaxed, but at your fancy gym, it’s in fact quite rigid. Every single culture and subculture falls along the tight-loose continuum and it affects people’s perceptions of threats, how they relate to each other, how they consume, and, of course, the narratives that shape the businesses and brands that form within that culture. 


Michele Gelfand is the author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers. Her life’s work has been spent researching something extremely fascinating, how tight and loose cultures form in the first place and if and how they can actually be changed. Of all the studied cultural phenomena out there, this is perhaps one of the most important in helping us understand the world in this very moment and, as we love to discuss on Unseen Unknown, why the world works the way that it works. Tight and loose cultures are systems that have been especially in flux over the past few years. Once you understand the concept, it will not only reveal a new perspective on the world of business and branding, it will also reveal the deeper logic beneath the many seemingly illogical things in the world that may have been on your mind lately.


But I have a story about how I accidentally discovered cross-cultural psychology. I was pre-med and I was at Colgate University. I left to go for a semester abroad to London and I remember really being totally shocked when I got to London in terms of the differences in… I remember calling my father, Marty from Brooklyn, and confiding in him how much culture shock I was having. Among other things, the idea that people were just going from London to Paris or to Amsterdam just for the weekend. My dad said something that really changed my life. He said, “Well, imagine like it’s going from New York to Pennsylvania.” I’m like, “That’s a great metaphor.” Actually, the next day, this is a true story, I booked a trip from London to Egypt and it was really there in Egypt when I was traveling around and thereafter around the world where I recognized just how powerful a course culture was.


So I came back to Colgate and I luckily was able to find a class on cross-cultural human development taught by Caroline Keating who was telling us about all her work on Africa on visual illusions and how they’re not universal. I went to the University of Illinois, worked with Harry Triandis. From then, it was history. I’ve just been spending my life in studying this invisible, powerful force that affects us all.


Define for us how you delineate between tight and loose cultures. What are the differences? How are they formed?



All cultures have social norms or unwritten rules for behavior. We’re socialized from a young age to wear clothes when we leave the house, most of us, to not steal people’s food off their plates in restaurants, or not to sing loudly in libraries or in movie theaters. We implicitly learn the codes of our cultures in terms of following social norms. What I’ve been focusing on is the idea that groups vary in how strictly they adhere to social norms. Some groups very strictly adhere to norms. They’re tight in our language. Other groups are more permissive. They’re much more loose. 


Basically all cultures have tight and loose elements, but what we can see from our research is that you can place groups on a continuum in general from tight to loose. For example, cultures in our data that veer tight include places like Singapore and Japan and Austria. Culture that veer more loose include places like Spain and the Netherlands and the US and Brazil. It’s important neither is intrinsically good or bad. It really depends on your vantage point. Tight cultures provide a lot of order, a lot of discipline. Loose cultures are the bastions of creativity and tolerance.


So it’s really something to really understand in terms of why these cultures evolved the way they do. Why might some cultures be tighter or looser? That was really the subject of our first study on tight-loose. What was fascinating is tight cultures on the one hand and loose cultures on the other weren’t united by any obvious features. They didn’t share the same geography or the same religion or tradition. They didn’t share differences in wealth either. But they did share something really pretty profound. Tight cultures in our data tended to have much more collective threat in their histories. That threat could be from Mother Nature, like think about Japan having chronic natural disasters, or it could be from human nature. Think about places that have had constant invasions of their soil or have had high population density where there’s potentially a lot of chaos. Or even pathogen outbreaks.


When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. When you have chronic threat, you need stricter rules to help coordinate and to survive. That’s not to say that all tight cultures have had a lot of threat or all loose cultures have been on easy street, but in general, tightness tends to evolve from having a lot of collective threat. So that’s a big picture summary. In the book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, I talk a lot about how we can analyze our many different contexts through a tight-loose lens, whether it’s nations or states, organizations. Even our own households and our individual mindsets. 


Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that because I’m wondering, how powerful is threat really? Does it take much of a threat to create a tight culture or does it take very little?


Yeah, I mean, it’s a really important and fascinating question. In fact, prior to COVID, I would have had a different answer to this question because a lot of our research in the laboratory, like if we bring people into the lab and we activate threat, like fake threat, we talk about potential terrorist attacks or we talk about population density increasing or other types of threats, we see quickly people tend to like rules more. They want rules. They have this intuition that having rules helps in these kinds of contexts, whether they understand that consciously or not. We saw that with the Boston Bombing for example or 9/11. We saw that immediately we accept more rules and, again, the intuition that rules can help coordinate during these kinds of contexts.


But what was fascinating is that last March in 2020, I was starting to get really nervous about whether or not the US, with its great amount of looseness, is going to be able to tighten up as quickly as other cultures that have experienced a lot of chronic threat. Looseness is great for, like I mentioned, for things like creativity and innovation and tolerance, but there’s a real question whether these cultural traits are a mismatch during times of collective threat. So I started studying this, partnering with computer scientists, seeing, well, is it the case that loose groups tighten up less quickly? Is it the case that this affects their ability to contain the disease in terms of cases and deaths?


Sure enough, what we found in a paper we just published in the Lancet, is that loose groups across 57 countries had five times the cases and almost nine times the deaths as tighter cultures. This was controlling for many different factors that could be important in predicting these variables. Things like population density, like average age, wealth, inequality. Tightness-looseness predicted above and beyond these variables. What was really fascinating from my point of view was we found that loose cultures were far less fearful of COVID. Not just in the first 100 days of the virus, but also throughout COVID-19 up until the day that we were analyzing this data, which was mid-October, whereas tight cultures had far more fear. It was on the order of 70% of people on average in tight cultures were very scared of getting COVID, whereas only 50% in loose cultures were.


So would you go so far as to say that tight or loose cultures can actually affect your perception of a threat?



Well, yeah, because when you’re in a context that’s had a history of a lot of threat, it becomes something that’s chronically accessible in the population is what I would say. If we in the US were constantly invaded by Mexico and Canada throughout our history, if we constantly had chronic natural disasters or chronic pathogens, then we would have this cultural preparedness to know that sacrificing liberty for some constraint temporarily is important, that it saves lives. 


How do the people that are raised in tight or loose cultures relate to the idea of authority? Because you did mention in the book how different cultures create different kinds of authority.


Yeah. Well, I think that in general in loose cultures, you socialize from an early age to question all sorts of rules. You look at the bookstore, mainstream American bookstores. They’re all about breaking the rules. If you live in a context where there’s less threat, those codes really make a lot of sense. But if you live in contexts where there’s a lot of collective threat, then following the rules is going to be more important and transmitting those kind of values and norms to kids is going to be more important. This also applies, by the way, even within our country.


In some of our research, we’ve been looking at differences across social classes. You can think about people in the working class having a lot of threat, like chronically having to worry about slipping into poverty, into hard living. Chronically living in neighborhoods that are more dangerous and being in occupations that not only have more structure and less digression, but that are also more dangerous. In our research, we can see that working class families, parents think rules are much more important than middle and upper class families where there’s a cushion, there’s a safety net. If you do something wrong, you’re not going to be in dire straits. I mentioned this is socialized very early. We can see this even among three year old kids in our laboratory who are playing with puppets who start violating the rules. It’s the working class kids in our data that are much more likely to protest when the puppets starts breaking the rules. 


So it’s not as though rules are not important in any social class or any culture. They are, but it’s the matter of how much they are negotiable.


Yeah. This idea of how if there is chaos in our lives or lack of control, people are pretty willing to give up a lot of liberties for a strong hand that would actually promise some idea of normalcy.


Totally. That is totally right. In fact, we just published a chapter on culture and populism that applies exactly what you said. You’re a great psychologist, Jasmine. This is a perfect hypothesis, that when people feel threat, whether it’s perceived or it’s actual, then it makes sense that they want stricter rules and stricter leaders who are going to deliver that kind of structure. We know from the election dynamics that this was found to be the case. So before the 2016 election, we were measuring in the US how much threat people perceived from ISIS, from immigration, from other threats. Sure enough, people who felt a lot of threat, they felt the US was too loose and they wanted a stricter ruler like Trump. This was also replicated in France during the Le Pen election. 



It also helps to explain some puzzling phenomenon. Like why were people in Iraq welcoming ISIS in some areas? It sounds ridiculous to Americans. In fact, when we look at some of the data being collected on the ground during that time, my colleague Munqith Dagher was measuring people’s sense of security, their sense of normlessness in some of these areas. Sure enough, the places where ISIS took over rather quickly felt like there was just a sense of normative breakdown whereby you’re yearning for some kind of order. 


The same thing applied in many ways to Arab Spring. Once Mubarak was taken out, this very strong man, things tended to go to the opposite direction. They went to extreme normlessness and chaos. You heard people shouting freedom in the streets of Cairo, but in fact, it quickly became obvious that there was very little coordination, a lot more crime, a lot more disorder. Sure enough, in our data, people who felt that things were getting too loose, they wanted another autocrat. They wanted the return of the Muslim brotherhood or Salafi government. This is a common pattern that we often miss in foreign policy, that when we see a place losing control of their norms, having no order, they yearn for extremists and autocrats to fill that void. It’s not the only reason why that autocratic recidivism, we can call it, happens, but it’s certainly culture is an important part of that story.


You also expand on this a little bit in your whole chapter on America’s warring states. Because I think I, like many people before they read this book, if they just heard of the concepts tight and loose, they might confuse tight and loose for conservative and liberal. But they’re not the same, are they?


That’s right. I mean, conservative is really a mindset and preference for stability and traditions. Certainly conservatives probably would like to live in contexts where there’s stricter rules. They even, in fact, probably are able to enforce them more. But you certainly could find loose domains among conservatives and you can find tight domains among liberals. So environmentalism is really a very tight domain for liberals. It’s something that’s become an ultra rallying point around having stricter rules in this context. It’s not the case among conservatives. I think we can think about, zooming into any context, what domains are tight, what domains are loose, why might that be the case, and then, of course, thinking about how to negotiate those.



Yeah. So I want to start applying this to branding a little bit. Let’s talk about this in a brand context. When it comes to political brands, is there anything that ever beats the threat story?


Well, I don’t know… I’m not a branding researcher, but I can say that threat is certainly a primal response and we don’t always realize it’s affecting us. Like I mentioned, in our laboratory research, we can easily manipulate threat, activate fake threat, and we see pretty quickly people have this tightening response. That is to say that they start desiring stricter rules, stricter leaders. They start becoming more focused on order and discipline to the sacrifice of creativity and tolerance. So we see this in the laboratory. It’s not, obviously, long lasting because it’s just a rinky dink prime in the laboratory, but clearly, I would say, when it comes to using threat messaging, it’s a mixed bag when it comes to trying to get people to change their behavior


Like for example, if people are just told that COVID’s really threatening, unless they feel that they have some kind of efficacy to deal with it, they might withdraw completely and it might backfire. A lot of research in psychology will suggest that. So I think when we use threat as a messaging technique, particularly to deal with a collective threat, we need to really couple it with strong sense of empowerment that we can do this. That said, I think it’s a fascinating area.


I just wrote a paper on tight-loose and consumer behavior. Some of the things we talked about for example were that brands in tight cultures that have a lot of threat might have more stability, tradition, reliability, formal types of themes whereas cultures that veer looser might have more risk-taking, creative, informal types of themes. Anecdotally, we can see some of this even in the same industry. Like Harley Davidson is like, “Oh, let’s screw it. Let’s ride.” Real loose kind of mentality. Whereas Suzuki is more about performance. Performance above all. Even in the banking industry, I’ve seen, anecdotally again, we don’t have a lot of research on this, but I’d put some money on this, that, no pun intended, but American banks like Chase, they emphasize innovative banking features. You look at places like in India, India Core Bank, it’s more about safety, security.



So I think that branding also is something that really reflects these cultural codes. We probably expect to see much more variability in loose cultures in the kinds of brands that people try and see if they work and try to differentiate ourselves from our competitors with different types of brands where I think you’d see a lot more homogeneity in branding in tighter cultures. That’s my speculation. I say we put some money on it and get some research done on this because I think it’s a really important topic and I’m fascinated by it. The paper, Tight-Loose and Consumer Behavior, is on my website for anyone that’s interested in it.


Oh, yeah. For sure. We’ll link to it in the show notes for this podcast.





So this idea that in the US, unlike other cultures, we don’t have very strong parenting norms so oftentimes parents feel very lost. I, as a parent myself, have experienced this firsthand. It seems to have created massive room for industries that teach you how parent and some of the most lucrative portions of that industry are based on threat stories. When I think of baby-safe foods, baby-safe clothes, baby-safe toys, nontoxic. Things that I’ve spent a fortune on because it is a very, like you said, primal cultural reflex. I mean, this might just be a primal human reflex, trying to keep your children safe. But do you feel that loose cultures like ours specifically do create these kinds of branding opportunities? I see branding opportunities where businesses and organizations are stepping in where the culture can’t answer a problem.



Yeah, it’s such a fascinating question because in tighter cultures, we know that there’s just stronger situations in the sense that people are co-oriented to what’s the right way to do things, have a shared reality around things. Think about the military. That’s a tight organization where people are socialized. They have strong socialization so that people co-orient to the same reality. That’s really helpful during collective threat. Loose cultures have much more variability in how we train people to think and what we value. So that creates a space for lots of different narratives to fill and way more variability on what’s the right or wrong way to do things that, in tighter cultures, there’s a much more restricted range of how we think about things like parenting.


I would say that I’ve seen it on both ends of the spectrum. Some of the branding’s all around tightness for parenting, like you mentioned. The kind of expensive schools that all these kinds of threatening toxins and… Basically helicopter-like parenting. Ultra tight types of parenting. But you also see the flip side, which is more of the kind of movement around no, no, no, let’s have laissez-faire parenting. That’s the way to go. We have too many rules for kids and kids need to experience life. You have a whole other movement that’s on that end of the spectrum.



I think it raised another interesting question, what you’re mentioning, which is that that just suggests that parents are going to have a lot more conflict on what’s the right or wrong answer if we have so much variability. I don’t think we think about this when we marry someone. We don’t think about, well, how tight or loose is that person’s mindset? On my website, I have a tight-loose mindset quiz that’s based on our data. People who tend to veer tighter, they like more structure, they’re more focused on not making mistakes. They have higher impulse control. On the flip side, you have people who veer looser. They’re less attentive to rules. They’re more risk-taking.



Again, to the extent that we don’t really think about who we’re marrying, you can imagine you get into a marital situation where your partner veers very differently in their parenting philosophy and you really realize that and then you’re in a predicament. You got to negotiate these differences. I, for one, can say that’s the case. I veer on the looser mindset. My husband, who’s a lawyer, veers tighter. He’s kind of mortified by my dishwasher loading behavior and other markers of looseness. But the thing is that these things aren’t destiny. We can negotiate culture in the household. I’ll just mention one more thing about this. Research does suggest that either too strict parents or too laissez-faire parents produce maladaptive kids.



Just like your country chart in the book. Super tight or super loose cultures tend to be the ones that suffer the most, but finding that right balance is the difficult piece. When you look at places like Singapore, which you mentioned earlier, and Thailand, they’re tight culture, but they’re working hard to bring in tourism dollars and oftentimes those tourism dollars come from very loose countries. What happens there? When these tight cultures need to attract loose dollars and they meet on their home turf, is there tension? Is there risk? What happens?



Yeah, I think it’s a great question. It just gets to this broader issue of the importance of being culturally intelligent. CQ, or cultural intelligence, is really becoming more and more important in the context of globalization. In particular, when it comes to tight-loose, the idea of knowing your audience, knowing where they’re coming from in terms of their level of tightness and looseness, I think, is enormously important. Often, we ignore it in business, international business. At our peril, we tend to focus on strategy and other types of things. But we often miss that kind of cultural iceberg.



I studied this actually when it comes to ex-patriots and found that it’s a lot harder to go to tight cultures. Much more difficulty adjusting. But also what was really interesting was that people coming from tight cultures going elsewhere were more adaptable. It might be because they’re used to reading the situation and then following the rules that go along with that. So really, it’s quite possible that the context of Singapore, that it’s really on the mindset of we need to be ambidextrous. We need to deploy tight advertising in contexts where it works and need to loosen up and be more attentive to, like I mentioned, ads that might focus on risk-taking and creativity and informality that wouldn’t work necessarily in tight cultures, but that might work in looser contexts.



So I think anywhere, what we need to do is first and foremost understand tight and loose and where it comes from, and then be strategic about being ambidextrous when we are operating in other cultures. I can mention also, in a study that we’ve recently done, we talked about it in a Harvard Business Review paper, we know that this is really difficult to do. It’s not easy. Devil’s in the details. We studied cross-border mergers and acquisitions across many, many different companies and across years. We found that countries that had big differences in tight and loose suffered a lot in terms of their performance and these mergers. That was particularly the case in contexts where they were in creative types of industries where people had to actually deal with each other versus manufacturing


But the point gets back to this issue of negotiating. It’s really understanding where we’re coming from and then negotiating what domains should be tight, what domains should be loose, which branding should be tight, which should be loose depending on the context. The more we recognize this invisible force and start really drilling down to why it exists, I think the better off we’ll be able to adapt in these marketing contexts


I really feel like you have this secret formula for understanding everything in the world. Something I forgot to mention earlier, that your tight-loose framework predicted the Trump election over 40 times better than even the most mainstream predictive tools out there. Is that correct?


Yeah, I think it’s one of the tools. I never want to totally say it’s the… Clearly it’s not the only construct that’s important in predicting human behavior. But I think that it’s useful to think about why it would affect things like national elections because here we have this issue of threat. As I mentioned, threat can be real and it can be misperceived and it can be manipulated. We don’t tend to focus on these kinds of things. I was just actually listening to a webinar, trying to understand the rise of autocracy. Obviously there’s a bunch of factors, but culture matters for this. I don’t think it’s something that just applies to Trump. These leaders will come and go, but what won’t come and go, what’s a cultural mainstay, is the perception of threat


So I see two different tensions. One is that misperceiving a real threat and not tightening enough, that’s what we found in COVID. That’s one kind of mismatch that we have to really deal with. On the flip side, what we’re talking about now is what happens when actually there’s misperceived fake threat and that’s causing tightening when it shouldn’t happen. When that happens, it, of course, deals with this trade-off of order versus openness. The tighter that we tend to move in general, we tend to sacrifice openness and creativity and vice versa. So I think that one of the most important challenges that we face is trying to calibrate in terms of the level of threat we have and be ambidextrous. We need to do this in the US. We need to prepare ourselves for the next major threat. How can we really come together to tighten temporarily?


Let’s talk about some of the cultural shorthand or clues that you observed in your research. Something I want to mention too is you don’t just do research in a lab. You go into countries and do serious observations and large scale research with populations. What I loved was some of the more quirky things that you noticed, like how public clocks are more accurate in tight cultures or there are more left-handed people in loose cultures. What are some of the more interesting signals that you’ve seen around the world?


Yeah. In the book, we have a chart that looks at how synchronized clocks are in city streets. We got this data from a colleague of ours. It’s amazing. In some cities, clocks say almost the same exact thing, like in Switzerland and Japan and Austria. In other places, clocks are off by a lot, like in Brazil and Greece, and you’re not totally sure that time it is. I think it’s profoundly interesting that this is another expression of coordination. So whenever I go places, I look to see, okay, how aligned are the clocks? When they’re not so aligned, I’m like, okay, I’m getting into a loose context.