Adam Grant on Why People Love Inspirational Quotes So Much

'The best ones are appealing because they’re memorable and motivating.'

Have you researched or written about why humans are SO in love with famous quotes? Further, does consumption of these ‘sage’ sayings lead to increased individual performance, attitude or behaviour…or not? — Michael (Saskatoon)

​APHORISM n. The finest thoughts in the fewest words.

That’s a meta-aphorism from my all-time favorite sociologist, Murray Davis. In what might be his second-most-interesting paper (the first was on interestingness), he argues that aphorisms inspire us because they’re both deep (revealing a profound truth) and wide (applying to a broad range of people or a universal situation).

They show up regularly in the rhetoric of charismatic leaders. The best ones are appealing because they’re memorable and motivating. They give meaning and direction. They spur new thoughts or new actions—or remind us to revisit old ones.

The worst sayings are clichés and platitudes (so obvious that they’re not worth repeating) or seductive lies (warning from Davis: “an interesting falsehood will attract more followers than a boring truth”).

The most provocative ones are reversals of existing aphorisms. Davis points to Oscar Wilde as a master of these: “Only the shallow know themselves” and “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” One that always amuses me is “Shoot for the moon—if you miss, you’ll still land in the stars.” Since there aren’t any stars between the earth and the moon, we should probably warn people that if they miss the moon, they have better odds of crashing into a really awesome asteroid.

Whenever I like an aphorism, I try to reverse it. Then I ask when each one is true. That was part of the fun of writing Give and Take—instead of rejecting “no good deed goes unpunished,” trying to explain how the choices we make shape whether generosity hurts us or helps us. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

(For more on that, see Roger Martin’s book The Opposable Mind.)

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