Decoding The Gurus Review

decoding the gurus reviewed by TPM

In the Decoding the Gurus podcast hosts Matthew Browne and Chris Kavanagh discuss and analyze various gurus’ psychology, and (dubious) claims and theories.

About the Author
Matthew Browne is a researcher and Professor of Psychology at Central Queensland University.
Chris Kavanagh is a cognitive anthropologist, Ph.D. at the University of Oxford, and researcher and Associate Professor at Rikkyo University in Japan.

Why We Recommend It

We love and recommend the Decoding The Gurus podcast to:

  1. Develop your critical thinking skills. The hosts generally apply good logic, scientific process principles, healthy skepticism, and valuable “sensible man takes”
  2. Develop healthy skepticism -and a bit of “positive cynicism“-. Helpful in the guru-age 🙂
  3. Learn to assess characters. Including charismatic men that may be skilled at presenting a good front while hiding their biases, motives, and “WIIFM”
  4. Learn to spot manipulation and manipulation techniques -including how gurus hide their ulterior motives behind ideals, values, missions or, of course, conspiracies-

… And, to have a good laugh while doing all of the above.

Favorite Episodes

Some that stood out to me:

1. Understanding Gurus With The “Gurometer”

In this episode, the hosts review 10 salient traits that characterize “guru personalities”.

And they share several examples of various gurus and how they’d rate them across those traits.

So it’s a good overview, plus several real-life examples.

The “gurometer” serves a framework to assess gurus, their modus operandi and, in simple words “how bad they are”.
Of course it’s not a scientific tool. The authors know that, and they often joke about it.

BUT, as per our own epistemological approach, science is only one approach to good analyses and “truth”.
And, overall, I find the gurometer to provide a very good framework for understanding guru personalities and guru dynamics.

This is the episode:

Edit: The Science and the Art of Gurometry

Later listened to their follow-up episode.

And it’s also fantastic, if not even better.

Absolute must.

2. Conspiracy Busting: Brett Weinstein & Heather Heying

The hosts spent quite some time on conspiracy theories and “conspiratorial personalities”.

So, again, it would be challenging to only pick one.

However, I find the one on Brett Weinstein and Heather Heying to display several representative patterns and dynamics of conspiracy-personalities.

I’d even go as far as suggesting this episode as a good form of intervention.

Meaning:

Please if you tend to over-believe conspiracy theories and to trust conspiracy gurus watch this episode.

It’s your duty to educate yourself so you can think more critically.
Not to reject any “out of mainstream” theory, of course. But you must learn to recognize biased and manipulative gurus who use conspiracy-mongering for their own power, influence, and gain.

Let’s dig deeper very quickly:

The conspiracy guru strategy for power

This is the game of the conspiracy theorist:

The conspiracy theorist strategy is to undermine the power and influence of established institutions so that he can get some of that power and influence for himself.

The price, of course, is truth.
And… You pay a large portion of that price. But since you’re part of society, we all pay some price when BS spreads.

So do the world a favor and listen to this episode:

3. Elon Musk: The Techno Shaman

Great critical take on Elon Musk, including:

  • Lies and the fine line between optimism and self-serving, outright lies
  • Enemies-making and framing as a target of conspiracies against him (ie.: liberals/woke who pull advertising from Twitter)

Musk & Trump Similarities

The hosts say that Trump and Musk share many similarities.

And only after they said so it also appeared immediately evident to me.

The impulsivity, the grandiosity, the huge plans that rarely come to fruition… The lies.
Yep.

Say the guys:

The parallel with Trump is very strong.
Both of them are endearing to a certain kind of audience (…) The cult of personality they’ve been able to build around themselves (…). The sort of immense loyalty (they could get).
They both present themselves as saviors of humanity (…) Trump is a much more negative frame than Musk, but it’s the same thing.
And they’re both self-aggrandizing (…)
I would characterize both as narcissistic

Later they added that Twitter’s moderation policy resembled Trump’s propensity to use government agencies as his own personal fiefdom.
And neither of them sees any value in committees, systems, institutions, processes, etc.

Who finds Musk/Trump interesting

A very deep question:

WHO finds these characters most appealing is most telling, say the guys.

They say:

when it’s like a personal ubermensch like Trump or Musk the audience feels a personal connection.
They (think they) know that their hearts ARE on the right place and they just want to make things better.
And there’s this extreme charity to them. Their conspiratorial thinking doesn’t kick in. But when it is presented as “this is men in grey suits (…) working in some building (…) when one tries to set up a consistent system then the conspiratorial brain just goes wild

I hope the hosts can forgive me for plugging TPM’s video instead of the podcast 😀 :

4. Joe Rogan & Jocko Willink

This was just fun to listen to.

And, in the process, also happens to demolish Rogan’s credibility :).

Gurometer

Definition:

The gurometer is a checklist of traits that are significant to the “guru” construct, red flags of (poor) characters, and common among gurus.

And the authors use them to rate the various gurus.

Why it’s the best approach to assess trustworthiness

The gurometer is incredibly useful because:

The gurometer approach leverages people’s behavior, which is the most readily and abundantly available resource to assess a person’s character.
And character is foundational to assessing the credibility, authority, and trustworthiness of any source.

It’s the same approach we encourage and advise here a TPM:

It “only” requires you to learn some psychology and grow some power awareness.

The opposite of a guru

An interesting question here arises for me:

If one scores low on the gurometer, then he may not be a guru.

But then, what is he?

The hosts mention “an actual expert”.
And I agree.
I’d say that “not being a guru” also means being a:

  • Scientist approach, subordinating oneself to science, to evidence, and new findings
    • Open to alternatives and open to being wrong, which many gurus only pay lip service to
  • Critical thinker
    • Aware and open to considering one’s biases (or at least open to recognizing and discussing one’s biases)
  • Principled man, as in having a conscience, morals, and ethics. Being a “honorable man” (or woman)
    • Respectful of the audience, including their ability to think for themselves and “power protecting” the audience. (Instead of pulling various power moves and treating them as disciples or pupils)

Gurometer Scale

Let’s now introduce the gurometer.

The main entries are from Chris and Matt (the #10 probably Chris as he was adamant for the more conventional round number).
Some notes are mine to elaborate on the hosts’ descriptions (my guru-ish streak demands to add my own take):

  1. Galaxy-brainness (Breadth), the guru tries hard to pass for authority with high-IQ, expertise, and depth of knowledge that others can’t match
    • Polymath, experts at everything, hot takes, special wisdom
    • Performative unnecessary references to literature/complex theories/science
  2. Cultishness: Unhealthy social dynamics, including creating In-group vs. Out-group
    • Flattery, some controlling, they’re special
    • Super charitable to friends and allies, and this includes “nepotism” in my opinion. See Trump as an example
    • Personal rapport with followers
  3. Anti-establishment, either because the “establishment” is corrupt, inept, or operating against the population -or at least, operating against the guru’s followers (often linked with conspiracy theories). The establishment is also often a monolithic and uber-powerful monster that must be destroyed.
    • Cannot trust any authorities or mainstream media
    • Undermining all other sources of information
  4. Grievance Mongering
    • Personal narratives of victimhood
    • Suppression of their ideas, which is also a convenient excuse of why they’re not as successful as they should be 🙂
    • Inculcating grievance in their followers, which here at TPM we found very disempowering. And it’s one of the main reasons we harp on against red pill gurus
  5. Narcissism / Self Aggrandising. They say it’s key to explaining gurus’ behavior, goals, and psychology (and I agree)
  6. Cassandra Complex
    • Warning of danger that others can’t see
    • Making predictions and saying their prior predictions are always right
  7. Revolutionary Theories (Content)
  8. Pseudo-profound Bullshit (Form- Verbal agility)
    • Scientism
    • Unnecessary references to literature/complex theories/science
  9. Conspiracy Mongering, but often hidden and covered. Thus the use of disclaimers and the preference to have their audience jump to the most extreme conclusions (instead of them doing so directly. Thus, I’d add “instigatory behavior” is another red flag)
    • Elaborate theories to explain mundane events
    • Secret coordination of powerful & malevolent groups and institutions
    • The world is targeting them and their friends
  10. Grifting with followers’ monetization, shilling supplements/dubious products, etc.

All entries are on a scale and there such a thing as “healthy balance“.

For example, one can monetize the audience without being a grifter.
Or he may grieve that he’s being suppressed and, in some (limited) cases, it may be true.

So to properly assess guru personalities there is no shortcut to developing one’s own critical thinking. And, I would also add here, developing your power intelligence.

Suggestions to Improve The Gurometer

Some ideas for the authors to safely ignore :).

First off:

  • Change the scale from 0-5 to 0-10. It’s more intuitive and larger appeal. (imagine a “47/50” VS “94/100). It’s more intuitive that the latter is a “bad guru” albeit they’re the same in their respective scale)
  • Change galaxy-brainess for “omni-sapient” or something like that. More intuitive. And you also drop the Latin authority bomb :).
    Jokes aside, I often forget what “galaxy brainess” means. You want names to re-call already existing associations

Then:

1. Swap narcissism for dark triad

To include Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

Machiavellianism may offer better cover for some grifters and more marketer-type gurus.

Also covers a very strategic predisposition in social exchanges and “influencer strategies”.

For example, Jordan Peterson for years passed for a balanced philosopher.
He said himself he was “very careful with his words”. What that truly meant is that he’d dribble, reframe, and counter-attack on anything that would give away the ultra-conservative he actually was.

To me, that’s Machiavellianism.

“Dark triad” also includes psychopathy, potentially covering types such as Alex Jones and Andrew Tate.

Sub-categories and/or traits to potentially include and look into here:

  • Manipulative tendencies
  • Misuse of science (part of manipulative tendencies). Including in the way they present, frame, dismiss or leverage studies based on the narrative they prefer
    • Mixing evidence, theories, and opinions. To me this is the biggest sin of “science popularizers”. They take 10% of (often misunderstood) evidence, then add their take on it, mix a host of dumb personal opinions, and frame it as “scientific” or “true”
  • Character. Plain and simple. I know, I know, it’s not “scientific” and it’s in good part subjective. Also, only a good character can judge well and everyone says they’ve got a good character. But STILL, this is foundational to many guru types (see the last quote in the quotes section for a good example)

2. Add “power” -including “caring for power” and “seeking power”-

At the core, gurus are playing a game of power.

Power includes popularity, which is the currency for influence.
And influence is one of the gurus’ favorite forms of power.

How “hard” gurus seek popularity tells you a lot about their motives and psychology.

Sub-categories may include:

  • Power of conviction

How confident and convinced they are of their own theories and knowledge, and how strongly they promote them and defend them.

10x the points if it’s opinions and theories that fall outside the guru’s area of expertise.

This also overlaps with that “dark triad charisma”.

P.S.:
The author here would score quite high there.

  • Power sensitivity

In daily parlance, “thin-skin”.
Particularly thin skin towards criticism and perceived slights.

The hosts know this, and indeed mention that it’s telling that some gurus they cover react quite badly.

This may also go under “dark triad”, but I think a category for “power” helps to better understand the phenomenon.

  • Will to power

A good red flag for this:

Quantity and intensity of attacks against institutions / other gurus / competition.

The dark triad guru can’t stand the competition for influence because he’d rather be the only shepherd (to lead the gullible sheep).

In that sense, it’s very telling that Elon Musk mocks Bill Gates and Zuckerberg. And that he mocked Bezos and his space exploration efforts.
Elon only wants humanity to be an interplanetary species if HE leads that charge.

  • Disempowering the audience

Some gurus like Tate do it aggressively.

But most do it covertly.

Such as using covert teacher frames and treating the audience as disciples, followers, or “learners”.

In daily parlance, this would be “talking down” or “babying”.
In part, Weinstein’s saying that what he’s talking about is “very complicated” is talking down.

A teacher’s attitude attracts the right type of audience.
An audience that’s low confidence, low-power, or looking for leaders/father figures.
It’s an audience ripe and ready to “follow” (acritically), empower the guru, and feed his narcissistic ego.

In that sense, it’s very telling that Jordan Peterson started to more directly disempower his audience.

See his body language here, as an example:

Note:
The breadth of JP’s conviction increased over time.
Now he’s an expert on nutrition, global warming, international politics, and… Diagnosing other people’s narcissism :).

3. Add “networks” to look at who they get along with

That “to judge a character you must look at his friends” is an old pop-psychology trope.

But I’d be surprised if it isn’t also true -and, probably, there may be studies to show that-.

Hence, it may be useful to look at who the guru hangs out with, who he interviews (more frequently), and who he gets along with best.

BTW, it’s no coincidence that many of these podcasters and gurus interview each other -how was that one of the birds of a feather?-.

4. Add “Level of Harm”: The Bottom Line Indicator

This should be the “bottom line” assessment.

The question is:

  • How much value do they add or take from their followers, and from the world?

If you’d ever consider giving different weights to categories, this one should count x2.

Different categories tend to score differently here.
Megalomaniac dark triads tend to be very harmful takers.
Grifters and marketers tend to be financial takers.
And “optimizers” do relatively little harm.

Great Moments & Quotes

Decoding The Gurus mixes great insights with a good time.

Some examples:

Brene Brown (reads that popular quote): the man in the arena, face marred with blood…
Guys: I don’t see any blood in her face

Great way to say that she’s overly dramatic, without saying so 🙂
See our take on vulnerability by the way.

Introducing Joe Rogan:

Chris: One thing quite obvious about Joe is that he is a manly man. He is a bro if a bro ever existed. He’s in the MMA, smoking cigars, while driving a tank. That’s Joe
Matt: He’s a man’s man’s man

On Jocko Willink, author of Extreme Ownership. On Joe’s podcast and why they picked the episode with the two of them:

Chris: he’s the guy that gets up at 4:00 am to do a thousand push-ups and bench press his family before you even had your toast, right? He’s better than you.
So if we’re gonna get the full testosterone experience why not combine the two of them in one single episode

LOL.
Speaking of which, here’s our take on that type of “self-help”:

Poking fun at Rogan’s bias and uncritical thinking:

Chris: I don’t know if you’ve heard it but there’s these concerns about voter ballot fraud (…). And this is a conspiracy theory of course there’s no evidence of this. And Jocko and Joe being you know the good centrist researchers that they are I’m sure they will not fall for that
(goes on to play a clip of Joe landing credibility to the stolen election conspiracy)

On Scott Adams:

Chris: I’ll issue a spoiler upfront. We looked at some people and some are particularly irritating to look at. JP series spring to mind (…) I think it is some achievement that Scott Adams is by far the person I disliked the most that we’ve covered and I’m really going to struggle to say anything about him, because he’s such an a**hole (..) he’s an a**hole

LOL.
Yep, a rather unpalatable mix of personal aggrandizement WHILE also being a Trump b*tch -worst of both worlds-. Plus sneakiness, and terrible content.
Win Bigly was one of the most irritating books I’ve read.

P.S.:
a good example that an entry for “character” in the gurometer may be helpful.

Criticism

And now we get to everyone’s favorite part:

The “spilling of blood in the arena”, as Brene Brown would call it :).

The main thing I’d mention:

1. Slight left-leaning / blank slate / mainstream bias (without fully recognizing it?)

Chris and Matt are “reasonable men”.

Their affiliations, ideologies, or political affinities are not extreme.
They’re not ego-fused with any group.

And they think critically.

However, they are more left-leaning.
(edit: Heard in later episodes, they’re aware and open about it)
And I’m not sure they fully recognize the extent of the impact on their takes.

Not only politically, but in what Tooby and Cosmides called the “standard social science model“.
Such as, over-weighing the role of culture and nurture over biology and “nature” -associated with political left and “wokism”-.

Tooby and Cosmides say that the “standard social science model” is prevalent in academia, the hosts’ stomping ground.

Other scholars have expressed the same:

Here’s why I sometimes felt the authors miss that bias:

1.2 Criticism of Harris Feels Left-Leaning

The hosts feel like Harris is closer to the right/libertarians/conspiracy theorists.

But in some passages, I felt Sam was more “super-partes” than the hosts.

For example, their respective analyses of immigration.
Including immigration risks, and politicians potentially afraid of opposing mass immigration for being labeled “racists” by the woke left.

1.3 Hosts rarely mention the biological aspects (standard social science model)

Example:

They skip biology to explain why they mostly cover (white) men.

There almost seems to be an unspoken assumption that genders should be both equally represented.

To me, it’s shocking that two smart men, including a psychologist, wouldn’t stress the gender biological differences.
Including that men may generally be more driven to acquire power and resources than women do.

1.4 Networking: they get along much better with more left-leaning folks

… Like Helen Lewis.

Admittedly, I don’t know nearly enough to judge.
But she seemed to push a rather strong “patriarchy narrative”.

Edit:
Listened to another episode with Lewis.
She pushed back on the biological explanation for male over-representation in the guru-world. She made a good point, but the hosts didn’t even re-state the importance of biology.

2. Tendency to Default for “Supporting Mainstream” & Opposing “Alternatives”

For example:

2.2 Always on the side of governments during Covid pandemic

During the Covid pandemic the hosts:

  • Criticized conspiracy theories (good)
  • Criticized anti-vaxxers (fair enough for many)
  • Favored the government’s responses

I felt at times they lost their good sensible approach.

Never once I’ve heard them say that yes, some governments may have gone (way) too far.

Or mention that the opportunity for more power may cause power over-reaches.

Or simply noting that the opportunity to impose and dictate may be a motivator for some politicians.

They never say it may be fair for some people to want to socialize with others who also choose to do so.
And if that doesn’t threaten everyone else, is it right to forbid it?

Those seem all “sensible man” questions to me.

2.3 Ridiculing “Pick-Up Artists” Approach to Dating As Useless

In one episode the authors laugh at NLP as a useless system for persuasion.

I’d partially agree with that.

But then they bundle it with “pick-up artistry”, implying it’s equally nonsense and useless for dating and attracting women.

If by “pick-up techniques” we mean all approaches to dating that some men learn in alternative education resources such this webste, I disagree.

The fact that academia or “mainstream” don’t openly deal with dating strategies and techniques doesn’t mean that one can’t effectively improve his dating skills.

Dating is an important realm of social skills.
You can improve social skills like you can improve almost any other skill. And the same is true for its dating sub-category.

Gurus to Cover: Suggestions

More suggestions for the hosts to safely ignore :).

1. Health & Fitness Quacks

  • Joe Dispenza and self-healing meditation
  • Wim Hof and the cold exposure cure for all -he may be a good guy, but there can be “good gurus” of course-
  • “Dr” Gundry: if you want to see the worst examples of “teacher frames”, look at this guy and his “I know better than you attitude”

2. Self-Help Gurus

For example:

  • Tony Robbins
  • Tom Bilyeu

2.2 Fanatical “Limit-Pushers” Zealots

  • David Goggins, the guy who ran through broken bones while soiling himself is apparently an inspiration to follow

These gurus latch onto a male hook of “gaining your own respect”.
And fear of being pussy-like.

I know that because I have that same proclivity.

Lex also falls for this.
His routines of fasted training and mental “preparations” reflect this tendency.
BTW reading Dostoyevsky in English and Russian to appreciate the literary nuances must be the most pretentious BS of 2023 :).

2.3 Optimization-Porn Gurus

Attia and Andrew Huberman are both in this category.

Tim Ferriss may be another good guy to review.

Biohacking Porn: Quit OCD, Embrace Life

3. Manosphere Gurus

I’m very familiar with these guys.

We’re in overlapping industries.

Some names include:

  • Rollo Tomassi, author of various half-good and helpful, half-lunatic and (covertly) misogynist takes and books in his The Rational Male series
  • Richard Cooper, author of The Unplugged Alpha and a major monetizer of male discontent
  • Andrew Tate actually, avoid just not to give it extra airtime

These gurus are big on power and “being alpha“.
In part, it’s the specular of feminism for men.
A conspiratorial view of women (/men) controlling society and oppressing their gender:

4. Marketers Gurus

Marketers seek guru-authority in a specific field to sell products.

Tai Lopez is an interesting case because he was one of the first crossovers from ads-fueled marketer to our next category, the influencers:

5. Influencers

Most gurus the guys cover seek fame with at least some skill, work output, or theory.

The influencers shortcut that game by “being famous for being famous”.

Some influencers may not be typical gurus because have little ambition to flash out opinions.

However, some do develop some “systems of thought”, theories, or tribes to better promote their products.

  • Liver King: the “primals” who are on a carnivore diet
  • Alex Hormozi. an interesting character between a marketer/influencer/capitalist businessman.
    I think he’s a great guy, including a straight character. But I’d love to hear what the guys say.

6. Guru Enablers

Tom validates Sadhguru’s approach of “listen to me, because I know better than you”

Enablers are the “gurus’ megaphones”.

Podcasters are after views, not truth.
And gurus are after the podcasters’ audience for a toxic win-win.

It’s folks such as:

  • Jay Shetty
  • Tom Bylieu
  • Lewis Howes

Check their top videos, all interviews with the same gurus:

Their defense is “I ask questions”.

Chris Williamson said as much when it was on their show.
Speaking of which, see if you recognize any familiar faces from Chris’ top interviews:

It’s challenging to be a successful podcaster, while also calling out potential BS.

Still, enablers end up being professional BS promoters.

7. Swindlers Gurus

Swindlers are the ultimate “10/10 grifters”.

Some examples:

  • London Real, can’t even bother to look up his name, a despicable character
  • Logan Paul and his string of NFTs

At yet a higher level we have:

And then, partially, Elizabeth Holmes.

These are the guys Coffeezilla focuses more on.

8. The Ultimate Stretch Challenge: Academic Gurus

Here are some challenging ideas for the hosts:

  • Steven Pinker: can you get that big and popular without being a guru?
    To me, he can come across quite power-seeking, and potentially narcissist-ish (see our Enlightenment Now‘s book review)
  • Martin Seligman: same as above. Our review shows some signs of power-seeking
  • Freud: this would be super interesting. I get some major dark-triad vibes from this man. He may be the most “successful” pseudo-science guru of them all
  • Amy Cuddy, Angela Duckworth and all the various researchers who pursued mainstream fame with dubious “science”.
    IMaria Konnikova may be interesting, from this interview.
    Also see “why good scientists are boring & poor, and poor scientists are famous
Why Good Scientists Are Boring & Poor Ones Are Famous

REVIEW

Decoding the Gurus is a fantastic podcast to develop critical thinking skills, people’s reading skills, and becoming a more (mentally) empowered, manipulation-resistant individual.

I first stumbled upon them with their episode on Nassim Taleb, a guy whose work we praised here (see for example Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan).
And their analysis changed my opinion.

I listened to many more episodes after that.
And eventually, I decided to add Decoding The Gurus to our super-restrictive list of recommended resources.

I always wanted to add some guru-analyzer there to help people develop their “snake oil-antennas” -or “BS detector” and “narcissist’s radar”-.

I thought Coffezilla YouTube’s channel and even started a review.
But Cofeezilla focuses more on more obvious fraud cases.
For TPM’s audience, I needed something that would go a level beyond, to include gurus that are more refined, well-spoken, and… More difficult to spot, in many ways.

So… Here they are, I’m very happy I found the perfect guys to recommend when it comes to analyzing guru and guru-like personalities.

Thank you for the work you do Chris and Matt.
And please stay strong to soldier through the torture of listening and analyzing the world’s foremost bullsh*tters :).

P.S.: The show review I couldn’t publish.
I wanted to leave a review in the tongue-in-cheek spirit of the reviews section but, alas… I’m an Android user 🙂 (and Spotify that I downloaded just for that doesn’t allow for text :S).
Here it was:

You may wonder what’s with all the Weinstein brothers in the show.
Well, we’re not advancing conspiracy theories, we’re advancing conspiracy HYPOTHESES.
So we’re not saying the Weinstein brothers made a pass on the hosts’ wives, but it could not be wrong. And the fact that it’s even plausible is stunning.
(Joe inhales a big puff of weed and in his best pensive voice weighs in) This kind of sh*t makes me think man…
Well, there you have it. Chris and Matt swore revenge, and Decoding The Gurus was born.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Decoding The Gurus
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