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Travel to Break Out of Ideological Niche

It is not my impression that the act of world travel, in and of itself, broadens the mind. Rather, people who go abroad just tend to view the various places they visit through the same paradigm of the place they come from –they see what they expect to see through the lens of their own culture, [...]

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It is not my impression that the act of world travel, in and of itself, broadens the mind. Rather, people who go abroad just tend to view the various places they visit through the same paradigm of the place they come from –they see what they expect to see through the lens of their own culture, through the looking glass of their own tribe. In this context, everything that runs contrary to these preset world views are either filtered out and blocked or twisted to fit neatly into the assemblage of opinion that is already taken to be fact.

If you think the world is poor and impoverished, you will find poor people everywhere. If you think that the world is fine and well fed, you will find this too. If you go abroad as a bleeding heart liberal you will tend to gain information, experience, and observations to build up this political stance. If you set out a staunch conservative, then there is much in the patterns of the world that will fit neatly into your arguments.

I do this too, I am ignorantly human.

Travel does not make people more worldly, it just adds more fodder experience and observation to their preset ignorances. Travel often has the weird effect of being able to show what each individual traveler expects to see. In this way, I do not believe that many people learn much of anything new just from traveling the world. They just seem to reinforce their own paradigms over and over again. I do not believe that visiting new places in the world changes the mind, rather, it just makes the skull ever thicker.

But I do know that the act of long term travel will eventually ease the clamps that keep these paradigms in place. I do not believe that this comes from exposure to the new, but, rather, from lack of exposure to the old.

I am not a different person now because I’ve traveled through 50 or so countries for over a decade. I am a different person now because I spent all of this time outside of my own culture, outside of my tribe, outside of the barrage of information that keeps my mind in its ideological place without replacing it with any other consistent line of information. I extended the distance between myself and my tribe, and the power that it held over my opinions wanned. This distance from the influences of your own culture is often enough to allow your mind to expand beyond the narrow confines of your tribe. Change in perspective only comes when the traveler is gone so long that they grow out of the cultural husk they started out wearing. The traveler does not grow into a new culture — going native is a pompous fantasy — but they often develop new approaches to life from not being force fed any singular world view.

Long term, multi regional travel often provides the elbow room to develop a particular brand of idealogical free radicalism. You are not hemmed into any one value set, any one political position, or any singular social tier. You are a social free radical, and can mingle with the high and the low of society — you are outside the lines of whatever pack you move through and are alloted a sort of freedom of thought and opinion.

Like many travelers, I have found myself comfortable with being the ‘other,’ it is only when I’m taken to be “one of us” that I find myself clawing for a social escape route. People say that travel is an addiction because of the thrill, the constant stimulation, of the practice, and this very well may be so, but for me, I know that the social free radicalism inherent to the travel is one of the prime factors that keep me on the road.

This social elbow room becomes very easy to get use to, and only presents a problem when in a situation where the social walls are hemmed in and you are expected to march in step, obstruct the path, or get out of the way.

Travel to break out of ideological niche, to face fact head on

The danger of disagreeing in a tribe

People tend to confirm their expectations. It is far easier to build up what you already believe to be true than to re-stratify an entire point of view.  An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless another force acts upon it.

Being the force that acts against the motion of previously uncontested opinion is often dangerous — doing so means challenging someone’s view of the world, it means challenging them personally. I have often seen the fire in a liberal’s eyes when I mention that many NGOs are hoaxes; I am sometimes lashed out against for simply sharing my opinion that the bulk of the “developing” world does not need to be saved; it is easy to be verbally attacked for making statements that runs directly contrary to what a particular tribe of people have built up to be undeniably fact from within the walls of that tribe.

I pick on the save the world sect here, but the same goes for just about any group of people who operate in a social information vacuum — a group, a club, a community, a tribe. Whether this means the rich conservatives of the USA, liberal activists, various religious sects, or the jungle people of Peru it is all the same: challenging people’s world view — their expectations of what they believe the world is like– is dangerous business.

[adsense]There are many opinions thrown around the world, and where those opinions are contested they are safe to discuss. But in places where an opinion is wrapped up as a communally confirmed fact, disagreement alone is enough to put you on the chopping block — kicked out, your sociability withdrawn. For a conservative and a liberal to go head to head in a public debate is one thing, but for a Republican to enter a liberal’s home and start talking about the great deeds of George W. Bush is to insult. In the second case, entry into a tribe — a perceived ideological safe zone — has been commenced, a contrary point of view raised, and the harmony of perceived fact disrupted.

The pluralist community is a myth, people rarely recreationally associate with anyone who is not their ideological compliment.

Any traveler quickly learns that when inside the walls of a community confirmed opinion, you keep your ideas to yourself. Nod your head politely, act aloof, but disagreeing only leads to problems. Individuals can be disagreed with but communities cannot.

It is funny how the human animal tends to lose intelligence in exact proportion to how many people of their group are in proximity to them. Individual intelligence is always trumped by group idiocy. The tribe renders the individual stupid, or, more precisely, the individual must dummy themselves down to ideologically fit within the bounds of their tribe. Take a person and stick them out of their element, have the same conversation, and you are prone to speaking with a much smarter person — or at least someone who is more open to hearing other opinions. Take this person in the context of their group and any semblance of ideological pliability often dissipates.

When I am faced with group opinion that I really do not agree with, I realize that I have  three courses of action:

1. Actively agree with something I don’t agree with or don’t really care about.

2. Directly disagree and challenge their world view, providing the necessary conflict which strong opinions often crave.

3. Act politely aloof.

The first option means shape shifting — something that I cannot pull off very well. The second second often means challenging the world view of  a group — which is dangerous. While the third option is truly a lemminglike maneuver.

Which option I choose depends on circumstance.


To believe any position on this planet is to be an ignorant fool. For believing in one angle of truth is at the expense of all others. It feels good to stake a sharp opinion, it feels good to be hard line. Humans are naturally aggressive animals, and inter-group conflict feeds our R-complexes like nothing else. Ignorance is natural.

Perhaps travel does not really lead to a free radical world view based upon experiencing other culture, observing other ways of life, or having additional exposure to contrary facts and figures, but because there is a distinct lack of consistent social pressure to reaffirm any single angle on the world. This does not mean that travelers are passionless blank slates, open minded shape shifters — to the contrary, the long term travelers that I have meet tend to be fiercely opinionated. But their opinions often fall off to the wayside of any established tribe, group, or sect: they become lone wolves, singular entities of a pack animal — social free radicals.

The traveler moves through a world of absolute truth. Each group, each culture, each social sub-sector of the planet claims that they have the one and only supply of this commodity. Truth, as in world-views and iron wrought opinion, is everywhere. The blinders of culture cannot be removed from exposure to the new but from a lack of exposure to the old. Removing yourself from the deluge of  opinion that you automatically take to be fact is what allows you to break out of an ideological niche. Travel does not inherently make anyone wiser — but getting away from the constraining forces of your tribe may.


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Filed under: Culture and Society, Perpetual Travel, Travel Lifestyle, Travel Philosophy, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

13 comments… add one

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  • Bob L May 19, 2011, 9:37 pm

    What a great post. So many different ideas very concisely written.

    I wanted to add to it, but could not find anything of worth to add.

    You wrote “I do this too, I am ignorantly human.” I, of course do this too. My question is, do you see this trait in yourself while you are doing it? I sometimes find myself doing it, and try to correct myself real time. Change is hard enough, but real time change is almost painful.

    Another question, have you ever run into someone (that is not trying to get something out of you) that you caught adjusting their script to what they think you believe in right from the start of a conversation? I have occasionally (Rarely) run into people that read me (easy with me) who instantly start talking about subjects they are pretty sure I would be interested in and with a spin towards what they think I believe in. I have found this fascinating, and maybe a little creepy. I have run into this a lot of times with salesmen and scammers or business people that want to make you feel comfortable, but to meet someone who has no stake in the conversation that can do it and even switch seamlessly when they realize they chose the wrong side of a subject. A true shape shifter.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 20, 2011, 12:39 pm


      It is great to get feedback on these types of entries.

      Your questions:

      “do you see this trait in yourself while you are doing it?”

      Of course, but I don’t bother checking it. I believe that this is a normal attribute of the human character. To check my impulses is to leave me feeling conflicted. I would rather be ignorant than feel conflicted in my words and actions haha. All too often conversation and debate and voicing opinion is just for fun.

      “Another question, have you ever run into someone (that is not trying to get something out of you) that you caught adjusting their script to what they think you believe in right from the start of a conversation?”

      This is actually where this article started. Many people in the USA assume that I hold the same sentiments as they do and when I find out that I travel they make very broad statements about the world that I really have a difficult time agreeing with. They are often just being friendly, and speaking from an angle that they feel that I support almost for my benefit, but I feel hamstrung into their tribe — a place where I don’t really fit it. There are certain world views in groups that are incontestable, not debated, taken as pure fact, so there is no prior indication that I could or would contest certain statements. By including me into the foray is to take me into their group, it is a polite gesture, but often creates a difficult situation. So I either need to just agree with them, disagree, or act aloof. The first option is to bullshit, and the later two are sometimes a little rude or at least create a conflict where there is really no point in starting one. When someone is challenging me, then returning the volley is OK, but when someone is just having nice conversation and they 100% expect me to agree with them the situation is a little difficult.

      I am a real social curmudgeon up here in Maine. The people around here are very polite to me but they sort of expect me to reconfirm their position on the world that I have a difficult time doing. The problem is that I am already inside the “tribal walls” so disagreement becomes a jagged endeavor and, ultimately, is pretty futile. At best, someone is just going to pass me off as a nut if I do fully speak my observations and experiences. I believe that a traveler is in a unique position to confirm people’s assumptions about the world, but I do not believe that they have to power to change them. Trying to do so just creates s social barrier of sorts that words cannot pass through and be absorbed.

      Very few people are truly interested in learning about the world to the point that they can have their world-views reworked. When people from the USA speak to me I get the impression that they are just looking for me to confirm their fantasies or assumptions. I have not yet devised a good strategy for this. Perhaps if I gave a lecture or something and spoke from a position of “authority” I could find a level plane for discussion outside of any set of “tribal walls.” But in terms of friendly discussion, I usually just find myself absconding — and I feel as if I really rip people off socially as I don’t often put my all into conversation where ideological patterning is obvious.

      I put myself into the realm of my criticism as well, although I know that my opinions are as variable as the winds — they are always changing with my exposure and experience — and I can’t take them very seriously. Where I stand today is not where I am going to be six months from now — literally and figuratively — and knowing this I am not going to stake a very strong claim on my present position. Knowledge is something to chase not hold.

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  • G May 21, 2011, 8:29 pm

    Wade, there is a fourth way, outflank them. If someone says something I disagree with I can begin by acting as though I agree them. But then continue on to push everything to its logical conclusion and then push a little bit further still. At that point I flash a sly grin and see how they react. So, if someone is promoting NGO’s my response is ‘yeah they do great work. Africa would be a real mess without them. In fact there’s simply no way those poor black bastards could ever look after themselves. We’d better resign ourselves to helping Africa until the end of time. It would probably be best if all young americans were required to do 2 years of volunteer service in West Africa so we can save them from themselves.’ But if you just want to avoid making waves then shape shifting is probably the best strategy; not as much fun though. G

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 22, 2011, 11:05 am

      Haha, yes, this method would be a good surprise hook. To use someone’s argument to logically deduce the exact opposite of their position is pure wit. It is true, I should have more fun with conversation. Word are often taken too seriously, as MRP points out above, none of us are going to hit reality with our opinions, positions, of words — we are all standing on a wobbly floor, always shifting. Conversation should be for sport, and opinion should be used to explore rather than to chasten. Your suggested response had me laughing. I could just imagine the look on people’s face from this twist.

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  • the candy trail ... Travel Adventures | Michael Robert Powell May 22, 2011, 9:16 am

    “Long term, multi regional travel often provides the elbow room to develop a particular brand of idealogical free radicalism.”

    I believe that I fit into that idea. And I exist alone mostly cos I can and cos I enjoy it. My belief is that I’m always learning and no knowledge is set or fixed and that I’m open to new ideas as they seize me but aware that everything is forever changing.

    That no one has definitive answers on anything in life cos there ain’t any – especially on the meaning of life, God, the way etc – so often best to avoid many people as they get repetitive across the world; seek out the interesting few, not the dull masses.

    And, don’t take life seriously folks (it’s not the Olympic Finals nor a zillion-dollar game show, it is simply a bizarre joke; existence is empty of meaning; don’t waste time with nobodies who think they know it all. Smile, and move on …).

    the candy trail … a nobody across the planet, since 1988

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 22, 2011, 11:29 am

      This is perhaps the apex of traveler wisdom here, MRP. It truly takes leaving your own ideological niche and traveling between many others to fully realize that, as you put it, there are no definitive answers. This is difficult for people to accept who want answers, and this wisdom cannot be shared. People like Krisnamurti tried, but he was just made into another ANSWER. It is like that scene in “Life of Brian” where the main character tries to tell everyone to stop following him but they just find this demand to be ever more a reason to follow. It is my feeling that most people need ideological moorings just like they need physical moorings in the way of a steady job, a house, a family, and a sense of permanent place. Perhaps the act of stripping yourself of place eventually has the potential of stripping the mind from absolute positioning. Many religions have traveling phases in which acolytes needed to wander by themselves to really GET the teachings, to get outside of their preset ideological niche. I believe there is something to this.

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  • the candy trail ... Travel Adventures | Michael Robert Powell May 23, 2011, 6:17 pm

    … I often wonder if / when my nomad-ism stops that I will then also get into the picture of belonging – in a geographical place; surrounded by things; having close friendships; and of course an “stable” ideology, which may mean belonging to a tribe, group, religion, simply cos it’s what one does as you get older; mostly you stop questioning and just get on with living/enjoying (or for many unfortunately, just existing).

    This is the nature of life for most people – for many reasons – and this security of mind and the physical reality of comfort and a belonging in a society/tribe stops the questions and pointless insanity of pursuing the truth (when we all know that is infinite …).

    the candy trail … insanity across the planet, since sliced bread became unfashionable

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 24, 2011, 2:23 pm

      Haha, funny thoughts. It is my impression that you have learned, seen, experienced too much to take yourself THAT seriously. Could be fun to do for kicks though haha.

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  • Sophie May 24, 2011, 2:40 pm

    Nice insights! People simply cannot escape it’s own cognitive biases by traveling the world.

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  • John August 20, 2012, 7:30 am

    I do have one thing in question, however i’ll see what you think…
    This may come across as picky, but you appear to suggest “idealogical free radicalism” as a kind of answer?

    I would have found this article to more satisfying if we weren’t left with an answer. Breaking out of ideological niches, doesn’t mean we should become radicals.

    Radicals have a particular brand of their own.

    These kind of people sounds like a group of intense, wise, slightly insane and wonderful people.

    I think that is good, but what i think your article is ultimately asking for is to dive into uncertainty….

    Here I will provide an example of what I’m concerned about. A person isn’t a ‘wise’ person. As if that is a fixed, permanent state. But rather they display characteristics of flexibility of thought. A monk can be just as bad at this as any of us. Just like an English teacher can have poor grammar. (myself included)

    A quote that I think summarizes what i’m trying to say is: “To know yourself is to forget yourself, and to forget yourself is to become enlightened by all things.”

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    • Wade Shepard August 20, 2012, 8:19 am

      What I meant by “free radical” was more of a metaphor than something concrete and certain. I meant it in the atomic sense, meaning an atom or molecule with an unpaired electron that can be positive, negative, or neutral in charge, rather than “radical” as in revolutionary or rebellious. What I meant this term to mean is someone who is ideologically unaffiliated with any particular group or social subset, someone who can have a variety of “charges” (points of view), or someone who wouldn’t “have a particular brand of their own,” as you put it. The absence of a defined social niche was what I was trying to define rather than trying to make a suggestion that people should form an all new group called “ideological free radicalism” or whatever.

      As far as suggestion any answers, sure, I personally think the world would be drastically more peaceful if it wasn’t full of zealots and special interest groups and political organizations and identity cults and people determined to impose their exact vision of the world onto others. But this is unfeasible as people seem to love nothing more than the security and comfort and sense of identity that comes from being a part of a group. This also seems to run contrary to the aspirations of our species in a biological sense, as we are essentially pack animals socially equipped to live in bands (or, in the modern era, ideological niches). My suggestions were not meant to be taken as a new “save the world” initiative, and was not meant to come off as any kind of alternative to anything. The last thing I want to do is to suggest some new way of seeing the world that has borders/ parameters/ definition points — this would be far too human 🙂

      The last thing I want to do is to present any answers. People are fine in their ignorant little niches. It’s normal, apparently feels good and, most often, is healthy. I wouldn’t want anybody to excommunicate themselves from their group by gaining knowledge about the world on the other side of the fence.

      What I was trying to do was describe the break down of worldview that comes from long term travel and living abroad — from not having your particular niche’s ideas reinforced upon you over and over again. Once you’re outside of your group’s bubble you will find that you start to come to conclusions that you may have once considered taboo, that the peers you left behind disagree with, and you basically start to be an “undefined social entity.” Or, a person with many viewpoints that could be looked at as being contradictory if viewed through the lens of established groups (i.e. liberal/ conservative etc . . .). It is sometime difficult to see these changes in yourself until you try to go home. It’s then that you realize how different you’ve become and how ignorant you once were.

      Travel and living abroad makes you see that the world is far too complex to be wrapped up into a nice and neat political or social point of view. So many people try to view the world through a looking glass, through a preset frame of reference. But you travel and you observe things that really don’t fit into this or that worldview and it begins to crumble, and you become free to collect your own impressions and come to conclusions for yourself rather than repeating the catchphrases that the home group taught you to repeat over and over like a parrot.

      What’s wrong with uncertainty?

      It’s my impression that one of the worst pathologies of the information age is that we all seem to think we need to have an answer for everything and an opinion on anything. Gotta stop now or this is going to be one long comment.

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      • John August 20, 2012, 8:29 pm

        I like your definition about free radicals, that makes more sense to me now.

      • Wade Shepard August 21, 2012, 12:35 am

        Thanks man. All the excellent comments are much appreciated.