Do Inspirational Quotes Inspire The Right Behavior? Research Says No.

Social media is flush with accounts that post inspirational quotes daily. A short sentence pasted on top of an image of some celebrity or nature scene, usually. And our politics hungers for an unscripted sound bite, a juicy quote that will get a few cycles out of what we are calling “news” today. Is our seeming obsession with the quote in popular media, politics and business leading us down a dangerous and uneducated path? Has our thirst for the inspirational quote just become fortune cookie nonsense?

Today we are skipping our obsession with the political or business quote (to be discussed later), and focusing just on social media’s so-called inspirational quotes. And why these quotes are killing us.

Inspirational Quotes Inspire What, Exactly?

I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.

-George Bernard Shaw

First, The Fortune Cookie

Interesting fact about the fortune cookie. For years Americans have expected one with their bill at Chinese restaurants. But the tradition is not Chinese at all. It’s actually an American invention, with roots in Japan.

Michael Lee, writing for, tells the story of how the cookie was first introduced by the Japanese in California. Because Americans didn’t want to eat the raw fish that was a Japanese cuisine staple, the Japanese struggled with opening Japanese restaurants. So they opened Chinese restaurants instead.


Chinese food was undergoing a culinary renaissance of sorts, and so it was an easy adaptation for the Japanese. However, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Japanese citizens in the United States were interned in camps for the duration of the war. And so too did their restaurants go into a forced exile.

The Chinese seized on the opportunity and began opening their own restaurants, as well as producing and offering their own fortune cookies. Fast forward nearly a century, and today over 3 billion cookies are produced annually for the United States consumer.

3 billion shells with short-sentence wisdom we are now putting online in greater volumes than cat videos. Judging by the number of followers, likes and comments these “inspirational quotes” get, (based on my limited hour-long research for this post) it would seem their popularity with their audience has said audience believing they are receiving an education.

An education as hollow as the cookie it came from–and as tasteless.


2 Out Of 3 Dentists Choose Trident

There’s actually been research on this. Go figure. In Psychology of Motivation, Lois Brown demonstrates that simply reading a motivational quote can make us feel the same as having accomplished something (you know, like if we had actually put in all of the work necessary to realize the lesson the motivational quote summarized).

That should frighten the fortune cookies out of us.

Not only does feeling we have accomplished something, learned some invaluable lesson, simply by reading an inspiration quote scream “I’m just going to phone it in, mmm-K?”, but is saps us of the important stuff.

If we feel the same when we read a quote about something as having done the same something, do we not think more of us are going to choose the easier path of less effort? And in choosing that path, are we not missing the hard work? The use of our brains to get creative and find solutions? The satisfaction of having accomplished something we worked for?

You know what’s better than reading a quote about “giving a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime”? Learning how to fish. I mean actually fish. Like learning what a hook is, what a line is, buying a pole, renting a boat, hiring an instructor, and repeatedly trying and failing and trying and failing, rinse and repeat, until a muscle memory is forged in blood, sweat, tears and experience.

To be great is to be misunderstood.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

(Do you know for how many years after reading that in high school I spent justifying my lack of responsibility, initiative and logical decision making to the fact that no one seemed to understand me. Because I was great. Just like Emerson was great. Right?)

Spend too much time consuming the quotes and not reading the entirety of the context from which they have been extracted, and before too long we may find we have wasted a life thinking we have accomplished stuff, learned stuff, only to find we are a walking Cliff Notes. An abstract of a full life we never actually lived.

A ghost.

A Pot Calling A Kettle Black

Now as I bow my head in a fair amount of embarrassed shame, I admit to having posted a few quotes on San Antonio Stays social channels (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). And in so doing I admit that I am no different than the thousands of other social brands that use quotes to drive engagement.

Find a free quote online (if you don’t already have a favorite playing stickball in your head, just waiting for you to call it off the bench for a moment of enlightened “Look how smart I am!”) Then, find a free image online. Finally, overlay the quote on the image and post.

Congratulations! You have just successfully educated the masses. I have been trying to teach my step-son to stop being so damn lazy, and then I get sheepish at having done the fortune-cookie-wisdom-pasted-over-a-free-online-image thing myself.

The quotes I have selected are longer than what I usually see online…longer than what a tweet allows or that a fortune cookie would hold. And they are from people I think are worth quoting. And by that I mean people whose lives are worth learning.

But does that make my quotes better than the others I find online? More worthy? Do I think I am better than others who use short, pop culture snippets?

It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations.

Winston S. Churchill

Am I just phoning it in when I do? Practicing the same laziness I deplore and preach against with my step-son when he just wants to finish an assignment no matter how poor the quality of his result?

Yes, I am.

The Job of Inspirational Quotes is to Engage (Not to Inspire)

So why have I posted quotes on my social medial channels?

Because the internet loves a good quote. They are what the social media people like (you know who they are), share and comment on, driving engagement and awareness about the person or brand posting the quote.

And a smart quote implies a smart poster (true or false). A quote that seemingly inspires action suggests the poster is someone of influence (true or false). And I do it for the same reason as everyone else who does it.

I do it to catch your attention. I do it to hopefully garner your like, your follow, your click, your interest in my content. And if you have an interest in my content, then perhaps you’ll take an interest in my business.

Though I am not ignorant to the hypocrisy I am practicing, to how it is all bullshit.

My business is not quote sharing. At the moment, my business is renting out my houses on AirBNB, VRBO and so that I can pay their mortgages. And be able to pay them long enough to see some appreciation on the value of the homes.

The quotes are merely the bait to the fish I want to hook. The cheese in my mousetrap. The salty peanuts on the bar where I serve the expensive cocktails I want you to buy. The dollar bills in the g-string of the dancer who… ok, you get it.

Like the dancer, the quotes are cheap entertainment.

But what if there was something more? Something of value in the posting, sharing and reading of inspirational quotes. Can we make them a little more right than wrong if there was?

Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

As long as we continue to entertain the sharing of inspirational quotes, we enable the attitude that there is sufficient wisdom packed into just a few short words that we can skip the lifetime of struggle that delivered the quote.

We can skip learning the message experientially, and instead quote the handful of words provided us by someone else (who likely experienced actual struggle leading to their epiphany of wisdom in the quote) and claim victory ourselves.

That is in fact what the research is telling us is our blueprint when consuming such so-called inspirational quotes.

Here is how the negative blueprint works:

I repeat the few words contained in the quote I just found online. I tell myself that I agree with them, that the words make sense, that I should incorporate the message behind the words into my life, that I am now going to live like the words suggest.

And then I carry on with my day, my life just as I had before. Only now with a faux sense of accomplishment, an imbecilic belief that I am somehow wiser now that I have read the quote, or worse, that I am somehow influential should I have gone so far as to share it with my own followers.

And then the cycle continues, as my followers read the quote and feel a faux sense of accomplishment…and on and on.

But what if the blueprint were a bit more…ambitious?

The quotations when engraved upon the memory, give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more.

Winston Churchill

I Like You, But Let’s Not Insult Civil Rights

Do you ever read a quote, and then look up the author?

I do every time I don’t know the author. And I do it nearly every day.

I have a browser plug-in that shows a new quote on a new tab every day. One day I liked the quote my browser plug-in served up, though I didn’t know the author. Wanting to know who he was and what he did, I looked him up.

I rarely write in to a company to complain about anything. When I was a kid my mom would write in to the potato chip companies to complain that the bag she just bought was only half full. They would reply back that potato chip bags were filled by weight and not by volume, and send her a coupon for a free bag of chips. Effective strategy.

This time I followed her lead and wrote in to the company responsible for my browser plug-in.

I like the plug-in. I like the product and what it offers me for free every day. I have been using it for years to start my day with a quote that gets my mind thinking, asking questions, priming it if you will before I begin some stream-of-consciousness writing.

On this particular day I was disappointed the company selected a quote by the author I had just looked up, because I learned he was a staunch opponent of the Civil Rights Bill and fought to maintain segregation in the country. It didn’t matter to me that I believed in the message of his quote–I didn’t want a company whose product I liked to promote anything by this particular author because he opposed something I believe in.

The quote had nothing to do with civil rights, segregation, or anything related, mind you. However, because I didn’t support his particular stance on a particular issue, the quote had far less import with me.

The company replied to my note calling out the author’s choice and my wish that a product I enjoyed would do better in vetting who they choose to quote. I appreciated the reply, and I continue to use the product. I also continue looking up authors of quotes I read who I do not know. (But a free bag of chips for my effort would have been nice.)

The quote could have inspired a thought for a day. But in looking up who said it, in gaining some context, the entire experience created a little more import than it otherwise would have.

I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.


I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

In creating that context, we can also gain a better understanding of how the quote has been used by others. And if we are inadvertently contributing to a mass deception by repeating or sharing words our collective society has gotten wrong.

We sometimes we get the meaning and supposed wisdom of our chosen quote so very wrong that you would think it enough to stop quoting at all and start reading all of the speech, or book, or song, or from whatever and whomever we cribbed the quote.

Here are a few of the ones our collective society has gotten (and continues to get) so very wrong.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled

Author: Robert Frost
What We Think It Means: Forge ahead on our own path, following no one’s footsteps, making our own way in the world
What It Actually Means: There is quite a bit more to his poem…you know, like more words and stuff. Read it to the end and you see that he found both paths “just as fair” and “worn really about the same” and that he actually chose his path randomly. Nothing at all to do with forging his own path.

The Duchess in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Love makes the world go round

Author: The Duchess from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
What We Think It Means: Love is the source of our life, what enables us to continue as a population. And something we should quote in a wedding speech.
What It Actually Means: Again, a quote we have taken significantly out of its actual context. The Duchess in Lewis Carroll’s story says the quote with a…what’s the word I’m looking for?…sarcasm? She says it immediately after she argues the value in beating to death a baby. She didn’t quite mean what we like to think about when repeating her words.

Nice guys finish last

Author: Leo Durocher, field manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946
What We Think It Means: If you are too nice, and not aggressive enough, you have no chance of winning at whatever competition you are in, including the competition of life (and usually more specifically applied to romantic pursuits).
What It Actually Means: Nice guys finish in seventh place. Not last, but seventh. Durocher actually was misquoted in 1946, referring to Mel Ott, right-fielder for the New York Giants at the pinnacle of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry, as being too nice. “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place,” he said about the Giants. Though the team eventually did finish the season in last place, his words were forever changed.

The devil is in the details

Author: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
What We Think It Means: Though something may appear simple, the little details in something, if missed, are what will be your downfall.
What It Actually Means: This one is also a misquote. Ludwig actually said, “God is in the details.” Not the devil, but God. Changes things a bit, doesn’t it?

East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.

Author: Rudyard Kipling
What We Think It Means: Usually used in politics, it is to suggest that countries on opposite sides of the globe and/or ideology will never agree with one another.
What It Actually Means: Here is an example of not reading the full text. Kipling continues his thought later with “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth/When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.” Instead of the half-a-quote meaning we’ll never get along (say, Americans and Russians never getting along), the full context would suggest we all are essentially the same—human beings—and need to (decide to and then figure out) how to get along with one another, despite and regardless of our geography, politics, religion, etc.

OK, last one…

Money is the root of all evil

Author: Geoffrey Chaucer in the prologue to The Canterbury Tales
What We Think It Means: Simply having money will lead to problems, so many problems your life will become evil.
What It Actually Means: Another half quote. The full quote is “Love of money is the root of all evil” which would nuance the popular meaning to actually mean that our desire and greed for money is what is the source of our problems, not money itself.

But humans like to to deflect responsibility away from themselves and impart it on something external they can more easily fight. The result of which is usually never learning anything because they never looked inward (which incidentally is exactly what usually happens when we look at quotes rather than their context).

Just Do It.

But does it even matter if we get the quote wrong? If the quote inspires its reader, and even if the reader knows nothing else about the author, has the quote not achieved its objective? If the objective is to simply get you that quick dopamine hit of “hey think about me for a half a minute”?

Can we really expect anything more from a quote than just a quick dopamine hit? A quick burst of inspiration that then is up to the reader to do something more with on their own?

Perhaps it all comes down to the user. In other words, it’s not the quote that harms us, but the user who doesn’t know what to do with the quote.

A fine quotation is a diamond in the hand of a man of wit and a pebble in the hand of a fool.

Joseph Roux

How about we try thinking of the inspirational quote as nothing more than inspiration for the reader to search for the quote’s author and learn something about him or her? To learn who the author was or still is, and what their life was about. To read a biography about the author, and decide for themselves whether the author lived their best life. Whether the quote is indeed a reflection of the lessons the author learned, and which can inspire the reader to have new thoughts, and take new actions.

How about we try reading an inspirational quote about doing something, and then go actually do that something?

I remember a quote by Steven Tyler of Aerosmith when Guitar Hero was popular that went something like, “If they only spent as much time learning to play an actual guitar as they do playing Guitar Hero.” Playing Guitar Hero is exponentially easier than actually learning how to play the guitar.

And that’s what aimlessly consuming inspirational quotes accomplishes–avoiding the hard, yet rewarding, work. So an inspirational quote can also be a surrogate for a life lived in the hands of a reader who is lazy and not willing to put in the work. That path is certainly far easier than the alternative. And less rewarding.

Doing the work of living your best life, and finding the inspiration to keep going when it hurts, is hard.

It’s real fucking hard. But just do it. (Nike’s fortune cookie marketing taught me that.)

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Published on: July 6, 2022  -  Filed under: Life Lessons  -  Tagged: , ,

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