Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense by Rory Sutherland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I had a difficult time getting into this book, an uncorrected proof received for review from the publisher through LibraryThing. Barely forty pages over a miss and miss (as opposed to hit or miss) month and a half. As the illogic would have it, 3.5 hours spent waiting for the chance to be told the documents I brought to renew my driver license were insufficient (grrr) gave me an extended window to dig in, and dig in I did. Lots of margin notes and sticky note flags. Sifting them for review relevance is yet another challenge! [For the publisher, there are some editorial comments at the end.]
First, I requested a review because the subtitle presented (“The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life”) caught my attention and I’d hoped to glean some tidbits for my wife’s business. It was a curiosity that another subtitle…and a different title were associated with the ISBN! Another subtitle: “The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense.” The other title: “The Thing Which Has No Name”. Huh. I knew that this was previously published in some form in the UK, but normally I can find a match for what was on the available list. (I did find a TEDTalk of a similar name to the “The Thing” version.) Sutherland is in advertising, hence the subtitle of my edition.
Second, footnotes have become a rarity in the nonfictions I’ve read in the past 10 plus years. Endnotes also seem to be going out of vogue. David McCullough maddeningly doesn’t include any notes!, but I think the most heinous trick is what I can’t find the term for, so I’ve taken to calling “un-noted endnotes” (those notes you stumble upon after you’ve finished, and it takes nearly a complete re-read to figure out where they came from and how they apply.) Anyway, Sutherland uses footnotes. And typographical signs. Those aren’t as friendly as enumeration, in my opinion.
In the Introduction, Sutherland claims the “alchemy of the book’s title is the science of knowing what economists are wrong about.” I don’t quite agree with that…oh, he does cite science here and there, but I think his thesis is more empirical in nature. He sees T as the irrational entity he is, and cites his irrational approach to trade as being more effective than a logical Hillary because “[i]rrational people are much more powerful than rational people because their threats are so much more convincing.” Probably true…but no reason to ever put an irrational person in charge of anything. In my opinion. Sutherland says
Being slightly bonkers can be a good negotiating strategy: being rational means you are predictable, and being predictable makes you weak. Hillary thinks like an economists, while Donald is a game theorist, and is able to achieve with one tweet what would take Clinton four years of congressional infighting. That’s alchemy; you may hate it, but it works.
So Alchemy is chaotic lunacy. And I don’t know that “it works”…despite the rest of the book. On the surface, and the whole, so many of the successes illustrated seem like accidents. (That quote was painful to type. T as a “theorist”?! And no rational adult can ever not feel immature using that term to twit something – guess that pegs me, right? But you might be wrong…)
More from the Introduction – and why I was wondering if I’d ever get out of it – Sutherland has a subsection of a subsection where he warns “Be careful before calling something nonsense.” Ordinarily, ,that might be good advice, but he explains with an example of a “1996 survey on the place of religion in public life in America [he’s British]” by the Heritage Institute that found
1. Churchgoers are more likely to be married, less likely to be divorced or single and more likely to manifest high levels of satisfaction in their marriage.
2. Church attendance is the most important predictor of marital stability and happiness.
3. The regular practice of religion helps poor people move out of poverty. Regular church attendance, for example, is particularly instrumental in helping young people escape the poverty of inner-city life.
4. Regular religious practice generally inoculates individuals against a host of social problems, including suicide, drug abuse, out-of-wedlock births, crime and divorce.
5. The regular practice of religion also encourages such beneficial effects on mental health as less depression, higher self-esteem and greater family and marital happiness.
6. In repairing damage caused by alcoholism, drug addiction and marital breakdown, religious belief and practice are a major source of recovery.
[And…wait for it…]
7. Regular practice of religion is good for personal physical health: It increases longevity, improves one’s chances of recovery from illness and lessens the incidence of many killer diseases.
Well, I did say he was British. Here’s where the rational reader steps in: the Heritage Institute is a profoundly right-wing entity with an agenda and would it surprise anyone to know that the questions might be skewed to achieve the results desired? Sutherland says “Religion feels incompatible with modern life because it seems [my emphasis] to involve delusional beliefs, but if the above results [again, know the source before citing] came from a trial of a new drug, we would want to add it to tap water. Just because we don’t know why it works, we should not be blind to the fact that it does.” He used one of those typographical footnotes to say “Take that, Dawkins!” Mind you, I’m 22 pages into this book and thinking “what a pile of woo he’s peddling!” I suspect Sutherland does not know of the 2006 STEP Project (“Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer”) that found no difference between prayer and placebo in coronary artery bypass surgery patient recovery…except that there was a slight increase… in complications … in patients who knew they were being prayed for! Okay…it did get better, if a little more than scattered in doing so.
In his Part 1, On the Uses and Abuses of Reason, bold title of a subsection states “How You Ask the Question Affects the Answer”. Spot on – see the studies of Elizabeth Loftus. (And substantiate my point about the Heritage Institute survey. Wisdom in hiring for diversity – ten people hiring one person each does not result in more diversity than one person hiring 10 people. He notes correctly that one person choosing a group will instinctively use a broader variance than one person hiring one person.
The reason for this is that with one person we look for conformity, but with ten people we look for complementarity.
Good stuff, and puts into words something already in my mental toolbox that was yet unnamed. He does talk about accidents being a part of discovery: “for all we obsess about scientific methodology, [Andre] Geim [discoverer of graphene] knows it is far more common for a mixture of luck, experimentation and instinctive guesswork to provide the decisive breakthrough; reason only comes into play afterwards.” Isaac Asimov is credited with saying “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …”” But oddly, in the same section, he talks about businesses and politics becoming more boring and sensible than they needs to be. And we “approve reasonable things too quickly, while counterintuitive ideas are frequently treated with suspicion.” And on the next page, he observes “We should test counterintuitive things – because no one else will.” The lesson is that the disruptive one will get attention, whether good or bad, and sometimes the disruption works.
Good quote from Cedric Villani, mathematician and winner of a Fields Medal: “There are key two steps a mathematician uses. He uses intuition to guess the right problem and the right solution and then logic to prove it.”
In Part 2: An Alchemist’s Tale (or Why Magic Really Still Exists), Sutherland shares one question on a test an ad agency used for prospective copywriters: Here are two identical 25 cent coins. Sell me the one on the right. One candidate answered he would take the coin, dip it in Marilyn Monroe’s bag and then say, “I’ll sell you a genuine 25-cent coin as owned by Marilyn Monroe.” (I’m quoting. Perhaps “quarter” is an unfamiliar term?) The lesson? “We don’t value things; we value their meaning.” I remember my older sons wanting a Pokemon Charizard card in the early 1990s. It was “rare”. Despite there being hundreds of thousands printed, there was a perception of rarity because so many more of the other cards were out there in the market. For them, there was value applied.
Another way to attribute value is to massage the semantics of a product, situation, activity. His example, “downsizing” as a voluntary move from a no longer needed larger home into a smaller one can be perceived (or communicated) as a decision of preference rather than a settlement of financial need. Sutherland says,
Create a name, and you’ve created a norm.
Part 3: Signalling, Sutherland talks of signalling expenditure in different ways to engender trust.
One of the reasons why customer service is such a strong indicator of how we judge a company is because we are aware that it costs money and time to provide. A company which is willing to spend time after you have bought and paid for a product to make sure you are not disappointed with it is more likely to be trustworthy and decent than the one which loses all interest in you as soon as the cheque has cleared.
And it’s often the small touches that signal perceived cost. My wife includes little gift bags with her customers’ orders. They cost her fractions, and the varying contents are often things the customer would never look twice at in a store, but those customers treasure the thought…and cost…and care that goes into including those trinkets. As Sutherland says, “costliness carries meaning”.
So, Part 4 (Subconscious Hacking: Signalling to Ourselves) had my mind screaming “NO!!” a bit. I should confide that Sutherland mentions Jonathan Haidt a few times and quotes from Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind; I thought Haidt’s research, approach and conclusions flawed terribly in that book. But I did liek this reminder from Haidt: “The conscious mind thinks it’s the Oval Office, when in reality it’s the press office.” (We’re rationalizing after the fact.) Sutherland appears to be a fan/proponent of placebos and those probably do work for his target audiences (recall, he’s in advertising…he wants to sell and advertising prey on the weak minded and easily influenced – my assessment, not explicitly his.) In one section he says “To recalibrate our immune response to levels appropriate to the more benign conditions we experience in everyday modern life, it may be necessary to deploy some benign bullshit.” The footnote tacked to this was…and I cringe as I type this…”If that means homeopathy, so be it.” NOOOOO!!!!! Homeopathy, in addition to being a ridiculous scam, is far from benign! People ignorant of the nonsense (note I do not use his “non-sense”) can suffer and even hurt/infect others if their malady is untreated. His opening example (that I’m only first referencing here instead at the top of this review) of Red Bull as a successful commercial placebo – he says hacking the unconscious; people buy it even though it tastes bad, comes in a smaller than normal size, and is expensive – might prompt and unconscious inference of small size implying higher potency. Those of us who are resistant to most advertising think rather “that’s an expensive gimmick you’re hawking there”.
From his Part 6: Psychophysics (his term), sometimes small space consideration trick the mind – a Boeing 787 has no more room than a 777, but the brilliant designers (one of which is a psychologist) created a slightly larger space in the entrance creates an “impression of airiness”. And this line “Even giving a tax a different name can have a colossal effect on whether people are willing to pay it.” One name comes to my mind: “lottery”.
Here’s a good quote: “Behaviour comes first; attitude changes to keep up.” That flies in the face of convention that attitudes drive behavior. Give people recycling bins and require them to separate…they probably become more environmentally aware. He says “Give people a reason and they may not supply the behaviour; but give people a behaviour and they’ll have no problem supplying the reason themselves.
So…despite the raw beginning, and plenty of quibbling points, there are nuggets of value here. They just take work to find…which may quite be intentional, but I don’t know. Stir things up, take risks, definitely question “we’ve always done it this way” (that’s my reduction…he dances around similar concepts), always question anyway (mine again, but like art, it’s what I took away. And I got another jumping off point, a book to find : Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.
Notes to editor, which may have already been caught or are too late to correct:
Page 10 of my proof copy, Introduction, “Some Things Are Dishwasher-proof…” section, paragraph says “In theory, you can’t be too logical, but in practice you can. Yet we ever seem to believe that it is possible for logical solutions…” should read never. (Quibbling? No, accuracy…and it caught my eye…I probably missed dozens of other …suggested … edits!)
Page 37, section heading “THE FOUR S-ES”, Sutherland says immediately underneath “There are five main reasons why we …” But he lists only four (yes, one is technically only pronounced as an “s”.
Page 160, section heading “Psycho-logical Design:…”, second full paragraph, “by removing the recording function from Walkmans, Sony produced a that which had a lower range of functionality…” Something needs to be between “a” and “that’; I suspect it should read “a product that”
Page 349, footnote “As John Lennon observed, ‘Time spent doping nothing is rarely wasted’…” John Lennon didn’t say that and the attribution didn’t start showing up until long after his death.
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