Why You Are Probably An NPC
And what to do about it
“The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played.”
It’s getting ever harder to distinguish humans from bots, not just because bots are becoming more humanlike, but also because humans are becoming more botlike.
As knowledge of human psychology evolves, algorithms become better at shaping human behavior. Step onto social media and you’ll see the same groups of people getting outraged by the same kinds of things every single day, like clockwork.
The rise of botlike behavior over the past decade has led to the creation of a meme: the NPC, or Non-Player Character. Originally a term to describe video game characters whose behavior is completely computer-controlled, it now also refers to real world humans who behave as predictably as video game NPCs, giving scripted responses and engaging in seemingly mindless, automated behaviors.
Naturally, everyone believes that their political opponents are NPCs, and no one ever suspects that they themselves are. But being an NPC is not about what you think or do, but how you determine what to think or do. And when judged by this standard, we are all, to some extent, NPCs.
Here’s why: the brain is commonly regarded as a thinking machine, but it’s more often the opposite: a machine that tries to circumvent thinking. This is because cognition costs time and calories, which in our evolutionary history were scant resources.
As such, the brain evolved to be a “cognitive miser” that operates according to the principle of least effort, taking shortcuts in thinking and perceiving that build a workable but hugely simplified (and cost effective) model of the world.
An NPC, then, is someone who does precisely what they evolved to do. Instead of splurging time and energy to identify what’s true, they take shortcuts to “truth,” outsourcing their beliefs and automating their reasoning.
The web offers several different shortcuts to “truth,” and the route one takes determines the species of NPC that they belong to. I have identified five common NPC species into which the majority of netizens fall. Analyzing the shortcuts they take is crucial to understanding the information landscape. Further, since you’ve likely been using at least one of these shortcuts yourself, considering them will help you identify the flaws in your own belief-forming behaviors.
Let’s examine the various breeds of NPC and their different shortcuts to “truth.”
NPC #1. The Conformist
Conformists are the stereotypical NPCs. They trust the process by which society reaches consensus, so accept the mainstream view on all things. Whenever they’re in need of answers, they consult the top result of Google — typically Wikipedia — and accept whatever answer it gives.
Trusting the consensus seems like a good shortcut to truth, because it feels like one is outsourcing one’s thinking to not one expert but to all of them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this in practice.
In 2016 a team of physicists led by Lachlan Gunn investigated the accuracy of witnesses picking suspects from police lineups. They found that as the size of unanimous agreement increased, so did its inaccuracy, until it was no better than chance. The researchers discovered a simple statistical explanation for this “paradox of unanimity:” since everyone is different, the probability of every single person happening to agree on one belief is tiny unless some irrational force, such as laziness or social pressure, is making them agree. In other words, the more people agree, the less likely they are thinking for themselves.
This would explain, for instance, how Peter Daszak’s letter and the Proximal Origin paper led to a premature consensus around Covid’s origins in March 2020. And why in that same month the WHO disastrously announced that Covid was not airborne.
When the truth is easily verifiable, such as in mathematics, consensuses are formed in the ideal way: when all the experts reach the same conclusion. But when the truth is not easily verifiable, such as in medicine or the social sciences, consensus is formed not when all the experts reach the same conclusion but when a few experts reach the same conclusion and then all the other experts simply take their word for it, typically because they lack the time or resources to challenge the prevailing hypothesis.
And the experts who initiate a consensus are often driven by bad motivations. Academics are incentivized to publish findings that are notable, which often leads them to manipulate or fabricate data. In the past few weeks there have been several such scandals. In one case, a prominent “antiracist” professor faked research to portray the US as systemically racist. In another case, the president of Stanford was forced to resign after evidence emerged that his research contained manipulated images. In yet another case, a professor who studies dishonesty was found to have engaged in it in her research.
Academics are also susceptible to being bought. In the 1960s the sugar industry initiated Project 226, the funding of a decades-long false scientific consensus that shifted the blame for heart disease from sugar to fat. Much more recently, the Deputy Mayor of London was caught asking a scientist on City Hall’s payroll to challenge studies questioning the effectiveness of the Mayor’s flagship Ultra Low Emission Zone policy.
Besides money, consensus-makers are also influenced by ideology. Academia has a strong left-liberal bias, and many academics are “woke” in that they’re primed to see oppression in even trivial occurences, leading them to behave more like activists than scholars. This bias is now so prevalent that no attempts are made to hide it; last year the prestigious social science journal Nature Human Behavior loudly and proudly called for the suppression of scientific discoveries deemed politically incorrect. Not that they needed to; most academics already self-censor to avoid the wrath of woke colleagues and students, which is little wonder, considering that 75% of students recently claimed they’d report their professors for expressing an offensive opinion. Due to the fear of ostracism, academic circles are typically spirals of silence where few feel able to state heterodox views.
Since academia is the source of most new knowledge, its biases are inherited by every information source downstream of it, including the mainstream media, Wikipedia, Google, ChatGPT, social media algorithms, policy papers, Hollywood movies, and societal consensus itself. The ubiquity of woke liberal bias makes it hard for us to see, just as fish have no concept of water, but this is precisely why it must be called out; unlike more extreme political views, liberal biases affect everything.
Recent history shows the development of the mainstream’s woke bias. Between 2010 and 2019 there was a roughly 400% increase in the mainstream media’s usage of words like “sexist” and “racist,” which was not justified by the actual incidence of discrimination, and has led liberals to, for example, overestimate the number of police shootings of black Americans by at least 2500%. This media bias in turn influences the consensus-makers, bringing the system full-circle, and creating a feedback loop of social justice hysteria.
All of this has driven, and been driven by, a mainstream gamma bias that emphasizes social disparities that disfavor women and minorities (such as movie representation), while overlooking disparities that disfavor men and white people (such as suicide rates). The former disparities fuel moral panics and conspiracy theories, the latter disparities are ignored.
Conformists who rely on mainstream consensus can thus be identified by their (often hysterical) overestimation of issues facing women and minorities. Their social media bios will often be decorated with salutes to social justice — BLM, he/him, LGBTQIA+ — but their belief in what constitutes social justice will be dictated by popular fashions; for instance, demanding more Hollywood movie roles for black people, despite black people being overrepresented in movies. The conformists’ demands for a more just world may be sincere but their simpleminded sloganeering, double standards, and refusal to appreciate the complexity of the social issues they decry make their righteousness ring hollow. Further, their subtle radicalization by Wikipedia, which has convinced them their opinions are normal and anyone who disagrees is “far-right,” makes them impervious to correction and spiteful toward anyone who tries.
Consensus leads to truth when the consensus-makers are motivated to reach truth. But public unanimity is as often a product of laziness, peer pressure, money, and ideology as of rational agreement, so the conformist often takes a shortcut not to truth but merely to the narratives that are most socially, politically, or financially convenient for the consensus-makers to have us believe.
NPC #2. The Contrarian
Contrarians are the antithesis of conformists: instead of believing whatever the mainstream believes, they believe the opposite. This is because they start from the position that society’s consensus-producing system is made to manipulate the masses.
A contrarian’s distrust of the mainstream often stems from an ideology that encourages skepticism of society generally, such as Christianity, Islam, or NRx. But just as often, contrarians are disillusioned conformists.
A conformist who develops a sense of curiosity eventually realizes that the consensus has not been completely truthful. The realization usually starts with a single issue, for instance gender. The conformist may initially notice that neither she nor anyone she knows has this “gender identity” she’s told she has. Then she’ll notice that the narrative that claims of gender dysphoria are increasing due to the lifting of stigmas makes no sense, because the majority of new cases are adolescent females. Then she’ll realize that the frightening claim that gender-dysphoric youths are more likely to commit suicide if they can’t obtain “gender affirming care” — a claim that spurs many to support medical transition for minors — is unfounded. Then she’ll realize the “Dutch protocol” — the consensus that a course of puberty-blocking drugs followed by cross-sex hormones is a safe and effective way to alleviate juvenile gender dysphoria — was based on methodologically flawed studies funded by Ferring Pharmaceuticals. And when she speaks out about all this, and receives no answer except accusations of transphobia, she’ll conclude that the consensus has been intentionally gaslighting her about gender, and suddenly she’ll begin to doubt its claims about vaccines, and race, and climate change, and Ukraine…
Our hatred for something will be more intense if we once trusted it, so conformists who feel betrayed by the consensus will often overcorrect and stop believing anything the consensus says. Thus is born a new kind of NPC: the contrarian.
Since the mainstream consensus is left-liberal, contrarians tend to lean right. They are a rarer species of NPC than the conformists, but they dominate the broad fringes of the internet, and are served by a fast-growing alternative media that is already comparable in influence to the mainstream press. Moderate contrarians, who instinctively disagree with the mainstream only on the most contentious topics, may get their info from mildly contrarian outlets like The Hill and the Joe Rogan Experience. More committed contrarians will rely on aggressively anti-establishment sources like Russell Brand, Tucker Carlson, and Bret Weinstein. The most extreme contrarians, who disbelieve everything mainstream, will resort to professional fabulists like Alex Jones and David Icke.
If a contrarian is not already a conspiracy theorist, then contrarianism will quickly make them one. This is because fringe media are naturally dominated by a single seductive narrative: that the establishment can’t be trusted because it’s controlled by shadowy puppetmasters seeking to manipulate the masses. The specific puppetmasters may vary — George Soros, Klaus Schwab, the Freemasons, the Jews — but in all variations of the narrative, the puppetmasters are using globalist policies and mainstream institutions to feminize men, create a one world government, and initiate some kind of “Great Reset.” It is this core belief that justifies the contrarian’s gambit of believing the opposite of the mainstream.
Conspiratorial thinking is hardwired into us via an evolved heuristic called “hyperactive agency detection.” Historically it was safer to be paranoid, because doing so helped us avoid traps. The result is that we've evolved to err on the side of presuming things are part of some scheme, which helps explain not just conspiracy theories but also creationism.
Today, with access to almost infinite information, contrarians can join whatever dots they need to in order to justify their paranoia. They’ll believe the mainstream when it supports their views, but will typically dismiss info that challenges their narrative as “WEF shilling” or a “Soros-funded psyop.” Basically, attacks on their beliefs become evidence for their beliefs.
Contrarians will often justify their rejection of mainstream consensus by bringing up past examples of it being wrong. But they’ll never apply this same standard to the fringes, which have been wrong far more often.
We know academia has a replication crisis because academics discovered it does. The fringes don’t have a crisis of self-doubt, because they’re not even attempting to self-correct. This is why most of the research I cite in my articles comes from the mainstream. (If I ever appear to attack the mainstream more than the fringes, it’s only because I hold the mainstream to a far higher standard.)
The mainstream media mislead the public with Russell conjugations and paltering (highly selective reporting), but they take care to get the actual reporting right, and when they don’t, they usually issue corrections. In contrast, alternative media rarely concede when they’re wrong; Fox News and Alex Jones knowingly peddled conspiracy theories for years, but only admitted to it when forced to in court.
The allure of contrarianism lies not in its accuracy but in its intoxicating high: a sensation that one is more aware than the mindless “sheeple.” Contrarians are quick to call conformists NPCs, but in truth they are not doing any more thinking; it takes precisely the same amount of effort to disagree with everything the mainstream says as to agree with everything it says. Black sheep may stand out, but they’re still sheep.
Contrarians are correct that the mainstream consensus is often wrong. But they commit an error when they assume, therefore, that the fringes must be right. Truth is not zero-sum; it’s possible to disagree with an idiot and still be an idiot. For this reason the path of the contrarian leads not to truth but to fringe conspiracy theories that are often fringe for good reason, and thus contrarianism is ultimately an even more perilous shortcut than conformism.
NPC #3. The Disciple
The disciple is not so much a separate species to the contrarian as its imago; the butterfly to its caterpillar. But it takes a different shortcut to “truth,” so should be considered distinct.
There is a human need to have faith in something, and if one cannot have faith in societal consensus, then that faith must be placed somewhere else. Contrarians try to put their trust in the fringes, but the fringes are cacophonous, so contrarians will often be tempted to put all their trust in a single, charismatic, anti-establishment demagogue. In so doing, they devolve into the oldest NPC species: the disciple.
Humanity’s first and simplest shortcut to “truth” was to choose someone considered wise — a sage, king, or prophet — and then believe whatever they said. In so doing, one outsourced one’s beliefs to the person they trusted was best at discerning truth.
Being a disciple is an attractive shortcut to “truth” because it requires no decision-making, only mimicry. Emulating a person is much easier than embodying an idea; when a Christian wants to know how to act, he could laboriously trawl through his Bible, or he could ask himself, “What would Jesus do?” Since people are mimetic, they tend not to follow ideologies but ideologues.
Today, many people form beliefs by engaging in a kind of cognitive cosplay, imitating the opinions of idols they admire. The most commonly followed idols today are men like Andrew Tate, Donald Trump, and Elon Musk. These messiah-entrepreneurs, who typically advertize themselves as delivering the masses from the globalist elites and averting the feminization of men and the collapse of Western Civilization, tend to lean right because the establishment is left-liberal. Further, they tend to act unapologetically masculine to allure young men deprived of role models by the mainstream’s gamma bias against them.
The idol exerts so much power over his disciples that eventually it overrides their integrity. Trump supporters decry the establishment for its dishonesty, while tirelessly making excuses for their idol’s pathological dishonesty. Andrew Tate followers are quick to call their opponents groomers, while dismissing substantial claims their idol is a groomer. And Elon followers, who are often terrified of vaccines, lab-grown meat, and social engineering, are seemingly at peace with their idol literally wanting to put chips in people’s heads.
The theoretical advantage of being a disciple is that if one can choose an individual with better judgment than oneself, then by adopting his opinions, one can appropriate that better judgment for oneself. However, in practice this tends not to work. A time-tested finding is the two-step flow theory, which states that most people's opinions are copied from their favorite “opinion leaders” (influencers, celebrities, demagogues), who in turn copy the opinions of their favored mass media. As such, a disciple’s idol is often themselves an NPC who is outsourcing his thinking to Fox News or some other low-grade source.
This is especially true of opinion leaders who lead busy lives, such as Trump, Elon, and Tate, who couldn’t possibly have the time to adequately research and consider all the topics they confidently opine on. This is apparent in their many ignorant statements, such as Elon’s claim that the US would be Covid-free by the end of April 2020, or his promotion of a bizarre conspiracy theory about Nancy Pelosi’s husband.
But when you are a disciple, none of this matters; idolizing someone blinds you to their faults, which you end up emulating. The disciple is ultimately just an NPC following an NPC, and thus the shortcut he takes leads not to truth but to wherever his idol blindly leads him.
NPC #4. The Tribalist
We lived in tribes for over 90% of human history. As such, tribalism is one of the most deeply hardwired of human instincts, and it frequently hijacks our quest for truth, so that other kinds of NPC tend to eventually evolve, or devolve, into tribalists.
The tribalist’s approach to belief-formation is simple: they’ll seek out whichever tribe they feel the most affinity with, and, under the mistaken impression that those who share their political beliefs are best able to discern truth generally, will then crowdsource their beliefs from within the tribe.
Tribalists have one clear advantage over other breeds of NPC: their tribe offers not just an easy way to form beliefs, but also a sense of belonging.
But tribalism also has unique disadvantages. Throughout history, tribes that held together would conquer tribes that didn’t, regardless of whether their beliefs about the world were true, so tribal belief-forming evolved not for truth but for binding the tribe-members together.
The glue that binds tribes together is usually a Manichean view of reality: “we’re fighting a battle of good versus evil, and, of course, we’re the good guys.” Tribes are held together less by intragroup attraction than by intergroup repulsion; they unite in response to external threats. This is why, in the absence of enemies, they will invent them. Instead of seeking to understand the real causes of an issue, they’ll instinctively scapegoat them on the outgroup.
We see this constantly in the culture war; leftists will favor beliefs that exaggerate the threat of bigots, and rightists will favor beliefs that exaggerate the threat of groomers. Further, instead of seeking to understand the true causes of complex social problems, leftists will simply blame rightists, and vice versa. And if the two sides decide to discuss the issue, they’ll approach the debate like sports fans, cheering on their team.
Since tribalists believe the outgroup is corrupt, they’ll rarely trust information from outside their filter-bubble, instead opting for intellectual incest in the confines of an echo-chamber, a kind of autoerotic asphyxiation that slowly starves them of sense.
Tribalists are deceived not just by their need to demonize the outgroup but also by their need to fit the ingroup. They’ll become trapped in purity spirals where they’ll compete with their allies to show the most devotion to the tribe’s principles, leading to the whole tribe becoming more extreme (and deluded) over time.
Naturally, tribalism is the truth-seeking strategy most common in the most tribal of pursuits: politics. Political beliefs broadly fall into two camps, even though the beliefs in each camp are orthogonal — climate change has little to do with abortion, which has little to do with Ukraine — yet if you know someone’s beliefs on one of these things you can usually predict their beliefs on the others.
Tribalism is an easy way to find a sense of community, but it’s no way to find truth. It invariably turns life into a fairy tale of good versus evil, or ingroup versus outgroup, and the need for belonging eclipses the desire for reality. Ultimately, tribalism is a shortcut not to truth but to an ever more polarized distortion of it.
NPC #5. The Averager
Averagers understand that both leftists and rightists are partisans who prioritize tribe over truth. They know that the truth is often to be found between the extremes, so they take the most moderate, centrist view on all matters.
Averagers think that by eschewing the excesses of the leftist or rightist, or of the conformist or contrarian, they avoid NPC behavior. In fact, averagers are not doing any more thinking than the extremists, and are therefore just as much NPCs.
Centrists who are thinking for themselves often picks sides; they’ll agree with the left on some things, and with the right on others. For instance, on healthcare I’m a socialist; I believe everyone should be entitled to free medically necessary treatment regardless of background. But on the issue of misinformation I’m a libertarian; I believe fact-checking should be crowdsourced (à la Twitter’s Community Notes) and not overseen by shady government bodies who decide for the rest of us what is true.
Unlike non-NPC centrists, averagers never pick sides, instead endlessly hovering in the safe middle-ground between the two. “Some medically necessary treatment should be free, but not all.” “Some fact-checking should be crowdsourced, but not all.” By constantly appealing to nuance and compromise in the face of complexity, averagers can signal intelligence while sparing themselves the need for any.
This is not to say that being an averager is simply about intelligence-signalling; averagers have usually learned to hedge their beliefs from experience; they are typically refugees from the extremes, who, after flirting with tribalism, conformism, and/or contrarianism, became disillusioned by these approaches and concluded that all sides are equally irrational.
As such, averagers frequently espouse horseshoe theory, the idea that the left and right are fundamentally the same and differ only on superficialities. Horseshoe theory has some truth to it, but it too often becomes a lazy way to justify bothsidesism and avoid the need to honestly engage with either side’s arguments.
Averagers are correct that issues are usually more complex than they are portrayed, but since they instinctively dismiss each side’s arguments without trying to understand them, they seldom have a grasp of the nuance they call for. When pressed on why they disagree with both sides, they usually won’t be able to offer specifics, and will resort to their stock answer of both sides being biased.
Since averagers always refuse to commit to a side, all their beliefs become lukewarm, and they never burn strongly enough to stand for something. As such, averagers are the most anodyne of NPCs, the least prone to extremism but also the least principled.
The advantage of taking the median position on every issue is that you’ll rarely be completely wrong about anything. But you’ll rarely be completely right, either. The path of the averager is therefore a shortcut not to truth but to the murky middle-ground between truth and lies, and for this reason it should be avoided.
So those are the five major kinds of NPC. A person may fit neatly into a single category, or they may be “NPC-fluid,” straddling two or more species; a conformist on Ukraine and an averager on gender, say. But everyone is an NPC on at least some topics they opine on, because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to have an informed opinion on most of the issues we talk about.
Think about it: the average lifespan of 80 years is just 4000 weeks. You’ve spent many of them already, and a third of what remains will be spent asleep, while most of the rest will be spent working and living. That doesn’t leave you much time to research or think about the things you’ll instinctively offer your opinion on.
People become NPCs because knowledge is infinite and life is short; they rush into beliefs because their entire lives are a rush. But there’s a better way to save time than speeding through life, and that is to prioritize.
Ultimately the real crime of NPCs is not that they cheat their way to forming beliefs, but that they feel the need to have such beliefs at all. Trying to form an opinion on everything leaves them no time to have an informed opinion on anything.
The solution is to divide issues into tertiary, secondary, and primary.
Tertiary issues are those you don’t need to care about: the overwhelming majority of things. Consider what difference it will make whether or not you know something, and if it won’t make a difference, resolve to not have an opinion on that thing. Don’t even take a shortcut to beliefs about it. Just accept that you don’t know.
Secondary issues are things that interest you, but which you don’t need to get exactly right. On these issues you must take shortcuts, so take the best shortcut there is: adversarial learning. Seek out the best advocates of each side, and believe whoever is most convincing. If that’s too much work, get your news from websites like AllSides or Ground News that allow you to see what each side is saying about an issue.
Primary issues are the ones you care about most, the ones you’re determined to get right. Use the time you’ve saved from ignoring tertiary things and taking shortcuts to secondary things to learn everything there is to know about primary things.
When you’re about to have an opinion, first ask yourself whether it’s on a primary, secondary, or tertiary issue. On tertiary issues, be silent. On secondary issues, be humble. On primary issues, be passionate.
Your brain will always try to save time when forming beliefs — it’s what it does — but the best way to save time is not to take a shortcut to “truth,” it’s to take no route at all. So if you want to stop being an NPC, simply say “I don’t know” to all the matters that don’t concern you. And that will give you the time to not be an NPC on all the matters that do.