Why “Inspirational Quotes” make you appear shallow by trying to appear deep

Enough already with the inspirational quotes. Inspiring epithets from the great and the good. We’ve all seen them, heard them, scrolled by ignoring them. Sage like wisdom, abstracted to the point of banality. Purgatory for the meaning and sentiment of well chosen words. These snippets of vanilla wisdom have become not just a blight of social media, Powerpoint decks and motivational office posters, they’ve become the raison d’être of communication for some people. There are Twitter feeds, Instagram accounts, Facebook pages whose sole purpose is to spatter them all over the internet.

However, posting inspirational quotes is mostly a reflex action as far as your brain is concerned. The quotist might think they’re making some kind of statement, but in reality, the inspirational quote is like the little hammer a doctor hits your knee with, and posting one into your social media feed is like your foot kicking up in response.

It gets worse, posting inspirational quotes shows an underlying emotional need to gratify your own ego in public. One that is, when you deconstruct it, wholly irrational because it achieves the opposite of what the poster intended. You might think it shows how deep you are, what it really does is make people think you’re shallow. You might think is demonstrates your intelligence, but in fact, it communicates a lack of it.

So how do wise words make you seem stupid ? Because it’s a thinking problem…


Inspirational quotes rely on a lack of critical thought, not an abundance of it:

All great quotes draw on classical rules of rhetorical speech. These rules, called ‘tropes’ in classical literature, were taught in Ancient Greece to hone the art of oration. Everyone recognises and uses these tropes in their own speaking… there are a lot of them too:

Litotes: Deliberate understatement for comic or dramatic effect, e.g.

“It’s not that I am smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer” Albert Einstein

Antithesis: Juxtaposition of contrasting ideas with symmetrical phrasing e.g.

“Either write something worth reading about or do something worth writing about” Benjamin Franklin

Epistrophe: Repetition of words at the end of phrases e.g

“Success is doing what you want, when you want, with whom you want, as much as you want” Tony Robbins

Antimetabole: Reversing the word order of a phrase previously employed, e.g.

“He who fails to prepare, prepares to fail” Confucious

Epizeuxis: Emphatic repetition, e.g.

“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed” Michael Jordan

Schott’s Original Miscellany lists no less than 16 classical tropes that denote a rhetorical linguistic form (litotes, paradox, paranomasia, periphrasis, catachresis, epizeuxis, epistrophe, antistrophe, antithesis, oxymoron, metonomy, cacophony, antimetabole, scesis onomaton, assonance, aliteration, brachylogia & anaphora).

These tropes have dominated the writing and speech of public speakers for thousands of years. Which means inspirational quotes are in many respects, a cognitive trick. When your brain processes the language, it recognises the structure and responds by assigning an emotive value to the words. In many respects, the grammatical form labels the content of the words “this is meaningful” and as a result, we tend not to question their meaning as critically as we might words of a different grammatical construction.

This is a function of something called confirmation bias, the tendency for humans to look for evidence that supports their beliefs, and be less critical about information that fits with your beliefs. So if you want to be successful, Tony Robbins’ quote “Success is doing what you want, when you want, with whom you want, as much as you want” might seem insightful, but in fact, the words themselves could just as easily be taken to mean he thinks serial killers, drug addicts or obsessive masturbators are successful.

By the same token, Einstein’s self deprecating quote “It’s not that I am smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer” is clearly not true. He won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922 and was absolutely, definitely very smart by anyone’s objective standards. In fact, he sounds like a bit of a dick in some respects… “Oh winning the Nobel Prize for Physics, yeah, anyone could do it if they just stay with problems a bit longer”. No offence, but that’s bullshit, Albert.

The point here is we’re programmed to respond to specific forms of words in a certain way. Knowing that means you’re not thinking at all when you find a quote inspirational, you’re just experiencing a reflex action. To illustrate the point, here’s a few quotes I’ve constructed using classical tropes, but very little thought:

“To create an inspirational quote, you must first inspire people to quote you”

“Inspiring people with quotes is easy. Quote this, quote that, quote everything and never stop quoting.”

“Inspiration doesn’t come from great quotes, great quotes come from inspiration”

Inspirational quotes gain authority from the person quoted, not the words themselves:

The thinking problem with inspirational quotes is made even worse by the fact we assume the words of the great and the good are somehow more important than the words of ordinary people. But that’s not true. Words have indivisible meaning. If they didn’t, we couldn’t use them to communicate concepts at all. They would just be sounds. However once we know who said them, that knowledge changes the meaning of the words themselves. It’s another paradox. Who you are really can be more important than what you say.

To explain, consider this epithet attributed to Winston Churchill:

“A dictionary of quotations is an excellent thing… for a man of limited intellect.”

And that just about sums it up. Quotations are a useful trick for sounding smart, but they don’t mean you are smart at all.

Now, despite quoting him, I’m not a huge fan of Churchill. He’s beloved of inspirational quotists, but also one of those figures who matched remarkable achievements with some truly awful things. He led Britain through the darkest days of World War Two but also, in his early career, allegedly sanctioned the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population, calling for Mustard Gas bombardment to suppress unruly mesopotamian Kurds and Arabs in the 1920s.

This human factor is a variable that makes inspirational quotes, ironically, fraught with uninspiring pitfalls. Let’s test that assumption with a little exercise: Read these inspirational quotes:

“If you turn a smiling face on the world, you’ve got a chance of finishing up a good-looking old person”
The Dalai Llama

“It is always more difficult to fight against faith than against knowledge”
Charles Darwin

“Living is what scares me. Dying is easy”
Steve Jobs

Now read them again, but this time with the name of the person who actually said them:

“If you turn a smiling face on the world, you’ve got a chance of finishing up a good-looking old person”
Rolf Harris

“It is always more difficult to fight against faith than against knowledge”
Adolf Hitler

“Living is what scares me. Dying is easy”
Charles Manson

Now at this point, you’re probably suffering from something called “Cognitive Dissonance” which is a psychological effect that occurs when something you believe is contradicted by new evidence. The way your brain copes with this unpleasant reaction is called induced acceptance where you downgrade the value of the contradiction itself. Which means you’ll probably decide this about the test:

1) It’s a stupid test
2) The quotes aren’t inspirational, they’re meaningless
3) You’ve been tricked and therefore, the test doesn’t prove anything

The point is, the words and the person who said them are an indivisible whole. So in order to inspire, the quote needs to be from someone you admire, which also means the quote might be meaningless or conversely, pedophiles, genocidal maniacs and psychotic mass murders have an equal ability to make inspiring statements as our heroes.

Inspirational quotes have no fixed meaning:

The disappointing truth about inspirational quotes is they mean whatever you read into them. They’re an empty avatar that in and of themselves, are wholly meaningless. You need pour your own interpretation into them in order to get meaning from them… like a joke where you write your own punchline.

This concept is counter intuitive, so here’s an example:

“Things do not happen. Things are made to happen.” John F. Kennedy

Now on the surface, that sounds pretty inspiring. It makes you consider your own potency, your ability to change the world around you. Change your life. Achieve your goals (etc.) but in fact, if you think about it, it’s nonsense because the opposite is also true, things do happen but they aren’t always made to happen.

There is, of course, causality in the nature of the physical universe, however the use of the word “made” implies intentionality, where there is none. In this quote, Kennedy is talking about the nature of political will within society. But our experience of the world doesn’t equate to the statement, for example nothing made me spill coffee on my laptop this morning, it was an accident. Now arguably, a confluence of events made me spill coffee, but that’s a pointless observation because there was no force willing that thing to happen, it was an unexpected event.

The point here is one of practicality. The causal nature of events is such that, in real terms, most things actually do just happen and are most definitely not made to happen. No matter what I do to change my behaviour, the chances of me never spilling a drop of beverage again are virtually zero.

What the Kennedy quote illustrates is the fact the quote alone is useless, I’ve got to flesh it out in order to give it meaning. But what’s even more bizarre is the fact when he said those words, the quote already had meaning, and not necessarily the one the reader constructs for it. In effect, whatever JFK was talking about becomes irrelevant for the quote to become inspirational. Which creates a paradox:

In order for an inspirational quote to inspire us, the original meaning and intent of the person whose words are quoted must be discarded.

Using inspirational quotes without context is a shallow, pointless exercise:

Great quotes weren’t necessarily intended to be quoted, they were made in a context. The current fad for posting inspirational quotes as in an end in itself is merely modernity reinventing the past in its own, 140 character image.

The true meaning of inspirational quotes belongs to a body of text, or a speech, or a conversation where they originated. A context that, when revealed, may alter meaning of a quote to the point of comical irony. This means we often quote blindly. My favourite examples of this come from the most quoted person in history (in a manner of speaking), namely William Shakespeare. In particular, the character of Polonius from Hamlet.

“To thine own self be true” is a classic example. Taken alone, this sounds like wise words to live by. The phrase is, in the play, uttered by the hypocritical Polonius and intended to make him sound shallow and two faced. How ironic.

“…brevity is the soul of wit” is another, coming 39 words into 85 word stanza about Hamlet’s madness, again, intended to make an ironic statement about the character himself.

In fact, both sayings, in context, mean the reverse of what we take them to mean when read in isolation.

Quoting is a useful contextual tool, it’s a way to orient the reader to understand the words that follow in a certain way. Prefacing an argument about business with a quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War will set a different tone from a quote by J.M Keyenes, or a human interest story that quotes Mother Theresa would take on a different tone from one that quotes Darth Vader, and so on. It’s a way of accenting your words to reduce the chances your readers or listeners will misconstrue the message you’re wanting to deliver.

Quotes are a modifier, a cognitive device that writers and orators use to insure their words are received in the spirit of which they are given. But to quote on its own merely leaves the receiver to fill in the message for themselves and conjure their own meaning.

Which means the inspirational quote poster really doesn’t care what you think. Which is why posting inspirational quotes is narcissistic. The poster might kid themselves their intention is to give other people something inspiring to think about, but what the really want is you to think something inspiring about them. And by association, as the quotes come from great men and women of history, cultural heroes as opposed to the obscure or cultural villains, they’re probably hoping you’ll think of them in a positive light.

It’s the equivalent of trying to make yourself more popular by hanging out with popular people, rather than becoming popular by actually being likeable. Which means, in the final analysis, posting inspirational quotes is deeply uninspiring.

In many respects, posting inspirational quotes is a form of what psychologists call maladaptive behaviour, meaning it’s a behaviour that is designed to address a problem but it’s actually dysfunctional and unproductive. Maladaptive behaviours can be subtle, and they normally relate to anxiety.

In the case of the serial quotist, it suggests they’re anxious about how intelligent other people think they are, so what they do to address their anxiety is quote the words of recognised intelligent people. However this doesn’t ultimately make them more intelligent, because parroting things other people say is not a measure of intelligence.

It it did, Parrots would be running the world as opposed to living in cages, referring to themselves in the third person and using words they don’t understand in order to be rewarded with treats, or to put it in simple terms…

“Polly wants a cracker”

Inspirational quotes are designed to make you think, but making people think isn’t an indicator of intelligence, or even sentience. Last night’s curry makes us think as it journeys through the digestive system, but it doesn’t mean it’s got some meaning to communicate.

Although come to think of it, last night’s curry does have something in common with inspirational quotes in that respect… it’s better to flush the end result away rather than share it with the world and expect them to think you’re smart.