Reading Albert Einstein’s biography led me to reflect on the impact on human evolution of the ideas of a small group of individuals who have been able to break free from mainstream thinking.
Why is it such a struggle to think outside the box, or – in other words – the confines of majority or group thinking?
Judith Rich Harris’ book No Two Alike provides an answer.
According to her research, the human brain has evolved so that we develop socially through three systems: a relationship system, a socialisation system, and a status system.
The brain has evolved this way as an adaptive strategy essential for survival. It is no wonder that each human being receives an enormous generic inheritance which enables us to fit into society on three levels: our disposition toward establishing and building relationships; the tendency to adjust our behaviour to the norms and customs governing the society we live in; and our propensity to compete with other members of society and, if possible, outperform them in some sense. In 1799, the American politician and philosopher, Thomas Jefferson, put it as follows in a letter to William G. Munford:
“I consider man as formed for society, and endowed by nature with those dispositions which fit him for society”.
Having said that, the fact that some individuals are capable of expressing their own opinions is to be welcomed, even when it comes at the cost of calling into question prevailing wisdom. Indeed, such mavericks have historically been the source of exceptional ideas which have enabled humanity to explore new paths and take unexpected steps forward. Examples of these individuals can be found in all fields of knowledge and expression.
Take, for instance, the dazzling Renaissance talent, Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci was a painter, anatomist, architect, palaeontologist, artist, botanist, scientist, writer, sculptor, philosophy, engineer, investor and musician. His insatiable curiosity and independence were a clear representation of the evolution of an independent-minded being.
The premises and hypotheses underpinning contrarian thinking have served as a catalyst for human evolution
Likewise, in the 16th century, in the religious realm, we come across Juan de Mariana. According to Juan Luis Albor, Mariana was: “an independent and fortuitous man, prepared to give his opinion without cowing to individual status or narrow patriotisms”. He was a Jesuit and studied art and theology. Mariana publicly opposed currency debasement, both in his 1605 treatise De Rege Et Regis Institutiones and in De Monetae Mutatione. The latter led to his incarceration on the orders of Phillip III of Spain and his favoured courtier the Duke of Lerma in response to specific allusions to the alterations being made to the weight of coins. According to his accusers, in De Regis Institutione, Mariana legitimised a form of Saint Thomas Aquinas-inspired tyannicide by justifying revolution and the execution of a king by his subjects if the former proves to be a tyrant.
In his book, Don Quijote de la Mancha, Cervantes also alluded to policies that were being applied during his time to debase the Habsburg currency. In this masterpiece he explains how debasement altered the colour of money such that coins with a high percentage of copper turned black. The blacker the coin, the less value it had. Don Quijote makes references to currency, trade and an individual’s struggle to stay afloat in a nascent bourgeois world. In fact, the first simile in the book sees Quijote describe the hooves of his nag, Rocinante, as: “having more cracks than a real”. In reality, he was referring to the monetary situation in Spain at the time, which saw the Habsburgs debasing the real to remove the silver content from billon coins.
Throughout history, all contrarian thinkers have encountered adversity as a result of running against the grain of group thinking. But with the passage of time, their premises and hypotheses have frequently proved well founded and it is thanks to them that human evolution has been able to advance so rapidly.
In investment, obtaining above average results, can only be achieved by doing things differently from the herd. Selling when everyone else is buying and buying when everyone is selling. Buying what nobody wants and selling what everyone wants. Steering clear of both euphoria and panic. Ultimately, seeing what nobody else sees. To do so requires developing one’s own set of coherent opinions, removed from the influences of mainstream thinking. Developing one’s own views – the root of genuine contrarian thinking – doesn’t happen overnight. It takes many years of sustained effort focusing on three undervalued actions: paying close attention to reality, reading continually and discerning reflection.