"Nobody Listens to Me in Real Life, But on the Internet Everyone Does"

A few months ago, the New Yorker did an intriguing profile on Mr. Money Mustache (I linked to it in a Friday Links post). It covered the expected MMM topics and then some: frugality, his blog, anticonsumerism and so on. Oh, and a bonus: the article was nowhere near as condescending[1] as expected.

But there was a minor theme in this article that really caught my eye. It showed up in a quote, a throwaway quote, that really struck me:

"Nobody listens to me in real life, but on the Internet everyone does."

Mr. Money Mustache has an enormous internet following. He has hundreds of thousands of readers happily and wholeheartedly embracing his frugality and wealth-building philosophies. I have two separate friends who, independently, made pilgrimages to meet him, both traveling from many states away. Clearly, "on the Internet" people do listen to him.

But hold on: how can nobody listen to him in real life? How can someone have such a powerful impact on perfect strangers in the virtual world, yet feel like his ideas fall totally flat with friends and acquaintances who actually know him in the real world? Wouldn't you think his ideas would be even more powerful and compelling to the people who see him in real life, particularly when in real life you can verify directly that his philosophy and lifestyle are real--and actually work?

Okay, sure, he might be exaggerating a little about "nobody" listening to him, but the point still remains: You'd think real-world friends and peers would have far higher trust levels than strangers over the internet. So why aren't they his most enthusiastic followers?

I have a theory why: Ego injury.

Because of our fragile egos (yep, your fragile ego--and mine too), your peers and friends cannot be experts. Why not? Because it represents an ego injury to us that we don't also have this expertise. It is literally an admission of weakness for our egos if a peer develops expertise in a domain where we should have expertise too.

And I'm not talking about all kinds of domains, just some. For example, it's not an ego threat that your neuroscientist friend is a neuroscientist. It's not an ego threat that a old classmate went on to get a PhD in physics. After all, they had to school for many years for this. You didn't go to school for many years to do this, it's not a threat to your ego that your peer has this domain expertise and you don't.

Oddly enough, however, it is an ego threat, a huge one, if this same friend happens to be in good physical or financial shape and has the temerity to share good ideas on how he got there.

Do you see the distinction? Ego injury is a far bigger problem in "regular life domains" like food, diet, fitness--and worst of all: personal finance. Everybody's supposed to have some degree of competence in these domains, so the fact that this other person has more than we do must mean his ideas--or his very competence--must be somehow suspect.

This leads us to denigrate or outright ignore people we know well for successes they have, when we should be listening to them and emulating them.

In short, it produces heavy cognitive dissonance to recognize that someone we know--a peer with more or less the same intelligence, the same starting point in life, the same abilities--could be better than us in these domains. It is deeply injurious to our egos.

So we resolve this cognitive dissonance, this ego injury, by denigrating the person, denigrating his expertise, or just… not listening.

And that's why nobody listens to Mr. Money Mustache in real life.

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Unrelated, barely tangential footnote:
[1] When a Manhattan-based journalist collides with someone unusual like Mr. Money Mustache the results can be fascinating. When somebody who's "seen it all before" (a common mindset of intelligent New Yorkers who are often staggeringly ignorant of the world beyond their NYC bubble), sees something new or unusual, they often react with condescension, sarcasm, even derision--yet another example of ego injury! Happily, this article surprised me: it was only condescending in a few places.

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Marcia said...

I am, of course, a huge MMM fan.

I wasn't sure where you were going with this...I mean, I guess I don't really see the ego thing as much, with respect to money anyway.

I'd say most people I work with don't listen to me in real life either
- for money, because they don't want to live the way I do (they want their big trucks, European vacations, etc.)
- for work, because I'm female. Maybe that is an ego thing.
- But for weight loss, yeah - that I've experienced. Maybe not recently - the older I get, I think the more open my friends and I get. As we all approached (and passed) 40, the "stuff that works" doesn't work anymore.

There's a fine line between realizing that everyone has their own differences and challenges and discounting someone because "they just don't know what your life is like".

Daniel said...

Thanks Marcia for a good comment! I think it has a lot to do with the topic--you're right: some topics, some areas of life expertise, produce a lot more ego injury than others. It depends on the person, the domain, *and* that person's ego strength.

And yes, of course, the "you don't know what my life is like" often is an airtight ego justification for discounting someone. Well put.