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Do as I Say, Not as I Do

·4 mins

It’s easy to preach, but it’s hard to be congruent with whatever philosophies you espouse. Certainly there are plenty of people who do as they say they do, but I suspect the majority of those who (like myself) write blog posts on self-help themes don’t practice much of what they preach.

Another example of this are fitness gurus. People who tend to be physically fit are not so much because they work really hard or whatever, but rather they have most likely won the genetic lottery in some way. When it comes to fitness, it comes down to about 40% behaviour and 60% genetics based on my entirely unscientific and strictly anecdotal life experiences.

It’s true that someone who is unfit can become fit by working hard enough, but most of the people who have great physical shape didn’t get that way because they worked hard: they are simply naturally predisposed to eating the right amount of calories, and their bodies are mostly the result of their genetic materials. Someone who’s less naturally physically fit can certainly achieve similar (or even higher) levels of fitness, but to do so they would have to override their natural desire to overeat or preserve body fat.

This post isn’t really about nature versus nurture or fitness or any of that, but rather it’s about the fact that (in my experience) the most preachy of people tend say what people want to hear, but they don’t necessarily say what they actually believe or practice in any way.

Politicians are a great example of the “do as I say not as I do” mantra. I won’t go into specific examples, but you can find many examples if you look to your preferred political echo chamber.

As a hypothetical example, imagine a politician who is anti-immigration but has a nanny who they pay under the table and below minimum wage to raise their children for them so they don’t have to. They pander to the anti-immigrant crowd because that’s their voter base, while simultaneously enjoying the fruits (pun intended) of immigrant labour.

This post doesn’t really have a point, except to say that you should be suspicious of anyone who preaches anything, including me, and rather than listening to what people say, instead focus on what they do.

If you work at all in any subject related to human behaviour, you will quickly learn that asking people what they think is quite useless. For example, most polls are useless. All those political opinion polls and whatever else you see in the news are often wrong because, again, they’re not measuring what people do, but rather they’re sampling what people say. In the case of politics, nothing really matters until the official votes are tallied, and (unfortunately) in places with bad voting systems (like most of the USA) people tend to vote strategically, instead of voting for the best candidate, which can result in outcomes where nobody wins. This can be improved with better voting systems like ranked choice voting, but that is still not a panacea.

If you ever want to understand human behaviour, you need to observe actions (preferably unbiased), without them knowing they’re being observed. As soon as people know they’re being observed, their behaviour will change. If you look into the details of clinical trials, for example, well-designed experiments will try to control for this in a variety of ways, but there is always going to be some error. Double-blind experiments are a good step, which is where both the person in the experiment and the person conducting the experiment do not know which cohort they and the subject belong to.

Additionally, measuring human behaviour is always tricky because much of what people do (and how they behave) is complex in the sense that you can’t understand the underlying intentions by simply observing the behaviour from a high level.

For example, if you want to understand peoples’ dietary behaviour, and you collect their credit card purchase history in order to attempt to establish what they eat and why, it most certainly won’t tell you the second part (the why). Perhaps I like to go to the McDonald’s drive through to buy a Happy Meal(tm) for the toy but not the food? You would likely never know this from the data (although, to be fair, statistical data only needs to be approximate, not exact, so this isn’t necessarily a great example).

In any case, I think the general advice here is: the gurus, the preachers, the podcasters, they’re all just humans like the rest of us. They might have interesting things to say, but do not worship the person. Nobody is deserving of worship.