Unpopular ideas

What is an unpopular opinion that you hold?

There’s an inside joke on Reddit that no one ACTUALLY believes anything truly unpopular. Or if they do, they are too afraid to say it. Once in a while someone will post a question along these lines. And often you end up getting relatively innocuous responses like:

  1. Marijuana should be legal

  2. Religion is bad for society

  3. Gays should have equal rights

If you frequent Reddit (or live in a relatively liberal bubble), chances are, these ideas are not that controversial to you if you’re being honest. They are often widely accepted, and some are even accommodated by federal law. Yet, they mysteriously maintain a kind of controversial aura that makes them edgy and marketable. And people who champion beliefs of such status (or brands who co-opt them) like to parade them around like some sort of courageous scarlet letter. Something very interesting is happening here. Especially when you consider that there are certain ideas out there that no brand (or person) will touch with a ten foot pole. What is brave?

In advertising, we constantly talk about taking "smart risks". But I've yet to hear anyone admit that most of the time we are reaching for "safe risks". Or, what I would personally call "fake risks". In most cases, courage in marketing is an illusion. Of course I realize there is good reason to be safe. It usually boils down to too much $$$ on the line.

Peter Thiel wrote a book about startups called Zero to One. I literally read the first 1.5 pages only because I don't read good. But in that first chapter, he talks about how he likes to ask a similar question during interviews: What important truth do very few people agree with you on? He criticizes answers like "Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed", which many people already agree on. Or answers like "There is no God", which simply take one side in a familiar debate. His formula for a good answer to the question is as follows:

“Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x”

I think this is a keen breakdown. What I'm discussing here is less about “important truths”, as Thiel calls them, and more about Ideas That Stick. But the same framework of thinking applies. Here’s my personal thought experiment for whether an idea or opinion is unpopular. Imagine you say it in a room full of peers. Like coworkers or casual acquaintances.

What’s the response? If half the room is comfortable with what you just said, the idea fails the test and the thing you said is not actually controversial. There are few things that you can say that will chill a room silent (or provoke an angry mob). Truly believing in an actual unpopular idea means, by definition, that most people will disagree with you. Or as Thiel would put it, you would need to believe in the opposite of popular idea x. An unpopular opinion should look like this:

The life cycle of an unpopular idea

What if I told you that seat belts were a stupid idea? Given the ubiquity and acceptance of seat belt usage for the past 50 years, you would probably laugh at me. But at some point in the 100+ year history of apes driving very fast moving machines, seat belts were largely considered unuseful and even dangerous by some. It wasn’t until some serendipitous co-incidence of timely marketing, public safety concern, and Big Auto interests, that seat belts were legislated into mass adoption, and thereby propelled into mass acceptance. And now, the pendulum has swung to the other end and it is considered very Not Ok to not wear a seat belt. (Although I rarely wear seat belts in cabs for some reason.)

There was some sort of tipping point for seatbelts as an idea, and we see this with many ideas that start out as unpopular (man buns?) and even radical or despised (marriage equality), then slowly curry acceptance with the general public. OR, they garner acceptance to some degree, but are eventually determined to be incompatible with human well-being, and are weeded out of the popularity race (like tobacco). It's probably a constant ongoing process to determine where an idea will eventually land, and reliably stick. Here’s what the process of accepting an originally unpopular idea might look like over time:

Acceptance levels start at zero or near the bottom and slowly climb up the ranks of social acceptance. Obviously, not every idea makes it through the gauntlet to arrive at full acceptance. Ideas can be vetted out and deemed Wrong or Incorrect, and get discarded at any point. Example: "The earth is flat" is an idea that almost made it to the very top of the chart at one point in history, but is now thankfully dead, and the debate put to rest (for the most part.)

The water cooler test: There comes a point where talking about an idea or holding a certain opinion becomes commonplace enough that it passes what I call the “water cooler test”. Can you bring this topic up or share your opinion about it at the office water cooler with a colleague? "I smoked weed last night"? Probably yes. "I think incest is ok"? Probably not.

To me, ideas above this line have reached a sort of safe and self-sustaining popularity. Ideas below this line are still trepid. [Caveat: That said, the water cooler test doesn't always apply to every type of idea—a lot of positions are "unpopular" in the sense that they aren't talked about often, or people don't really care about them. So they are unoffensive and unpolarizing. A silly example is the debate over whether to wipe your butt sitting or standing. Probably no one is deeply invested in either answer, so it is not sincerely divisive. A more serious example is something like the debate over whether superintelligence is a boon or a threat to human well-being. Not something we have mass consensus over, but also not a topic that is divisive on a personal level. So when I refer to the water cooler test, I am talking specifically about ideas that people feel they have a personal stake in, or debates in which people care deeply about the outcome.] /caveat

Let’s look at a few specific points along this hypothetical acceptance journey of an idea:

Inconceivable:
If you believe in an idea that is at this stage, at best you get some raised eyebrows, and at worst you are socially flogged and alienated for mentioning it.
An idea currently at this stage: Pedophiles deserve rehabilitation and a chance at social acceptance and integration.

Socially acceptable:
An idea at this stage is officially a “safe” idea. Although 100% of the world may not agree with it, no one gives you shit for thinking it. It clears the water cooler test.
An idea currently at this stage: Gays should be able to get married.

Widely indisputable:
Essentially taken as a fact of life. Disagreeing with it makes you an Ignorant Person or even a Bad Person.
An idea currently at this stage: Women should have the right to vote.

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Finally, who are the people doing the accepting/rejecting of ideas? Which slices of the population and how much of the population determine when an idea is OK?

(Slices are not to scale. I am not a goddamn scientist.)

(Slices are not to scale. I am not a goddamn scientist.)

Early adopters: Academics, early activists, and fringe thought leaders

Majority: The average person / most people

Skeptics: Laggards, Luddites, and grandmas

Everything was wrong at some point

I think people hate it when I say that. It means there’s a chance that some ideas that you don’t like today may someday become accepted, and even normal. It means that maybe, some portion of your ideology has the possibility of being on the wrong side of history. It’s a call to question all your beliefs and think about why you believe them. The seat belt is one silly innocuous example of something that no one 50 years ago would have thought would be widely adopted. But there are many more provocative ideas that are now widespread, and were hard-fought to get to that point. I mean, Galileo turned out to be right, and he fucking died in jail.

It's certainly disturbing in hindsight that our society was capable of being so tragically wrong yet so certain of its convictions. And while we (America) no longer imprison people simply for saying things we disagree with, we definitely still have the capacity to "know for sure" we are right at the same time that other people "know for sure" we are wrong. The intense partisanship of late is perfect evidence of that. The point is, we can probably agree that as a civilization of partially-enlightened apes, this definitely isn't our final form, and we shouldn't assume everything will stay the same in the future.

That said, here's a fun thought experiment: what is today’s version of Galileo's heliocentrism in the 17th century? Is there an idea that is currently so heretical or offensive or unlikely that you couldn't imagine most people eventually buying into it? We obviously don't have the prescience to predict future scientific breakthroughs or even to sense what ideological trends could be mainstream in the future. But there are some ideas that are clearly up for debate, and it's fun to take a stab at parsing them down to their first principles. And moreover, it's an important exercise to constantly question all standing ideologies, even with just your personal opinion. So that's where the question comes in handy: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

Here are some random example of ideas and my guess at their current level of acceptance (assuming they could die at any point):

What's the point of all this?

We call advertising "the business of ideas". And we spend most of our waking hours generating ideas. So it behooves us to get an accurate sense of the power they carry (or the power they often lack), and what they sound like to other people.