There was a perhaps apocryphal tale about a time when Reeves was out sailing with a client. The client made bold to ask why he should continue paying the same fee when the ad was never really changed. “What do you need all those people on my account when you never do anything?” Reeves, who could be surly, gruffed, “To keep your people from changing what I’ve done.”
Before starting out on this change of venue, they first collected data on the amount of paper hand towels used in the mens restroom for a period of 15 days to work out the average amount of paper towels typically used each day. Once this had been done they then introduced a large recycling bin near the sinks with signs indicating that the restrooms were participating in a paper hand towel recycling program, and that any used hand towels placed in the bin would be recycled. For the next 15 days, they then simply measured the amount of paper hand towels used.
Consistent with their laboratory studies, paper towel usage increased after the introduction of the recycling bin by an average of half a paper towel per person. At first glance this small increase doesn’t seem that big a deal. However, given that the restroom was typically used over a hundred times each work day, the increase in usage was substantial: It totaled about 12,500 paper hand towels annually for this one restroom alone.
Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers wanted to persuade a potential mate or ally of their good intentions would be better at it if they could deceive themselves without ‘leakage’ of knowledge or intent; and the most efficient way to simulate truth-telling would be to erase internal awareness of the deception. The best liars would be those who were better at lying to themselves because they would actually believe their own deceptions when they made them. They would be more likely to survive and pass on their genes; hence our gift for self-deception.
Auditors provide a good example of this bias. One hundred thirty-nine professional auditors were given five different auditing cases to examine. The cases concerned a variety of controversial aspects of accounting. For instance, one covered the recognition of intangibles, one covered revenue recognition, and one concerned capitalization versus expensing of expenditures. The auditors were told the cases were independent of each other.
The auditors were randomly assigned to either work for the company or work for an outside investor who was considering investing in the company in question. The auditors who were told they were working for the company were 31 percent more likely to accept the various dubious accounting moves than those who were told they worked for the outside investor. So much for an impartial outsider—and this was in the post-Enron age!
Obesity is contagious. If your best friends get fat, your risk of gaining weight goes up.
Broadcasters mimic one another, producing otherwise inexplicable fads in programming. (Think reality television, American Idol and its siblings, game shows that come and go, the rise and fall and rise of science fiction, and so forth.)
The academic effort of college students is influenced by their peers, so much so that the random assignments of first-year students to dormitories or roommates can have big consequences for their grades and hence on their future prospects. (Maybe parents should worry less about which college their kids go to and more about which roommate they get.)
In the American judicial system, federal judges on three-judge panels are affected by the votes of their colleagues. The typical Republican appointee shows pretty liberal voting patterns when sitting with two Democratic appointees, and the typical Democratic appointee shows pretty conservative voting patterns when sitting with two Republican appointees. Both sets of appointees show far more moderate voting patterns when they are sitting with at least one judge appointed by a president of the opposing political party.
Stories depend on the artful manipulation of what Loewenstein calls information gaps. In McKee’s words, ‘Curiosity is the intellectual need to answer questions and close open patterns. Story plays to this universal desire by doing the opposite, posing questions and opening situations.’ The storyteller plays a cat and mouse game with the viewer (or reader, or listener), opening and closing information gaps as the narrative unfolds, unspooling the viewer’s curiosity.
Bosses, who were men, didn’t care. Womens labour was cheap, so much so that Graham supplemented her meagre income by painting Christmas decorations for the banks windows. The exercise reminded her of something she’d once learned: artists painted over their mistakes rather than erasing them.
And that’s what led Graham to her eureka moment. She realized she could paint over typing errors rather than erase them. She mixed white tempera paint in her kitchen blender and put it in a little bottle. Whenever she made a typo, she blotted it out with a brush, waited a few seconds for it to dry, and typed over it. Marketed as Liquid Paper, the invention became one of the bestselling office supplies of the late analogue age. In 1979 Graham sold her company to Gillette for $47.5 million.
Excerpt from: Head in the Cloud by William Poundstone
In one especially elegant and effective experiment, psychologist David Strohmetz and his colleagues arranged for waiters to hand customers their bills with or without sweets, and examined the impact on tipping. In the control condition, diners were unlucky enough to receive their bills without any sweets at all. A second group was given a single sweet. Compared to the control group, this simple gesture of kindness resulted in a measly 3 per cent increase in tips. A third group of customers received two sweets each, and, compared to the control group, gave 14 per cent larger tips. Not bad. However, here comes the really clever bit. In the fourth and final condition, the waiters were asked to present the bill to customers along with one sweet each, then, just as they were turning away from the table, reach into their pocket and quickly hand everyone a second sweet. In terms of sweets per customer, everyone ended up with exactly the same number of sweets as those in the third group. But psychologically speaking, this was very, very different. The waiter had just carried out an unnecessary and nice favour, and, because of that, tipping increased by an impressive 23 per cent.
Davison dubbed this the “third-person effect,” and it goes a long way toward explaining how lifestyle advertising might influence consumers. When Corona runs its “Find Your Beach” ad campaign, it’s not necessarily targeting you directly—because you, naturally, are too savvy to be manipulated by this kind of ad. But it might be targeting you indirectly, by way of your peers. If you think the ad will change other peoples perceptions of Corona, then it might make sense for you to buy it, even if you know that a beer is just a beer, not a lifestyle. If you’re invited to a casual backyard barbecue, for example, you’d probably prefer to show up with a beer whose brand image will be appealing to the other guests. In this context, it makes more sense to bring a beer that says, “Let’s chill out,” rather than a beer that says, “Let’s get drunk and wild!”
Unless we’re paying careful attention, the third-person effect can be hard to notice. In part, this is because we typically assume that ads are targeting us directly, as individual buyers; indirect influence can be harder to see. But it’s also a mild case of the elephant in the brain…
They started by collating the information about what GP practices across England were doing, and used this to identify practices whose prescription rate for antibiotics was in the top 20 per cent for their local area. Half of this group of over-prescribers were then sent a letter, signed by the Chief Medical Officer, with feedback about their prescription habits, together with three specific things they could immediately do to reduce the number of prescriptions they gave out. For example, doctors can give patients delayed prescriptions, which enable them to get their medication in the future, so long as their symptoms persist. Alongside these tips, the doctors were told how their performance compared with others. They were informed that ‘the great majority (80 per cent) of practices in [your local area] prescribe fewer antibiotics per head than yours’. When Michael and his team compared the subsequent behaviour of those doctors who received the feedback letters to that of those who got no such letter, they were surprised by the impact. Over a six-month period, GP practices receiving the feedback letters prescribed an estimated 73,400 fewer antibiotic items than those that didn’t.
With sports affiliations, random birthplace suffices, and in business it is where you work. To test this, the British psychologist Henri Tajfel split strangers into groups, tossing a coin to choose who went to which group. He told the members of one group it was because they all liked a particular type of art. The results were impressive: although A) they were strangers, B) they were allocated a group at random and C) they were far from art connoisseurs, the group members found each other more agreeable than members of other groups.
Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
When Spotify looked at its music-streaming data, it found that teens listen to contemporary and popular music almost exclusively. As listeners age, their tastes expand. They spend more time listening to obscure bands and album tracks that were not hits. As the years go by, some take up jazz or world music or classical. But somewhere around age thirty-three, most stop listening to contemporary hits at all. The phenomenon even has a name—taste freeze. Men are more susceptible to it than women. Another fun fact: become a parent, and your “music relevance” takes a hit equivalent to ageing four years.
Excerpt from: Head in the Cloud by William Poundstone
A quick digression on expectations (we’ll return – almost as a recurring theme — to the importance of teaching and teachers later). In 1968 Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment in America where teachers were told that randomly selected pupils had actually performed in the top 20 per cent of a test that identified ‘potential’. This was, of course, untrue. But here’s the thing: when those pupils’ IQs were tested at the end of the year, they had increased relative to everybody else. Expectations improved performance.
A few years ago a mathematician friend explained to me that the game of tennis is enjoyable to watch only because of the scoring system.
If players swapped serve alternately, and the tally worked as in basketball, (Nadal now leads Murray by 127 points to 43; new balls please) it would be almost unwatchable. But because tennis breaks the score into watertight compartments, namely games and sets, it creates a structure wherein a losing player feels he is still in with a chance right to the end. That makes the narrative of the game far more enjoyable to fans and players. And because some rounds (break-points, set-points) are more critical than others tennis’s moments of high tension are interested as in a good opera or play, with quieter moments when spectators can relax.
Excerpt from: Rory Sutherland: The Wiki Man by Rory Sutherland
In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a longterm perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time -literally – substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.
Excerpt from: Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker
Half of the respondents, drawn from a national sample of relatively affluent households, were asked whether they could comfortably save 20 percent of their income, and the other half were asked whether they could comfortably live on 80 percent of their income. Of course, to save 20 percent of your income is to live on 80 percent of it. Nevertheless, whereas only half of the respondents thought they could save 20 percent of their earnings, four out of five thought they could comfortably live on 80 percent.
This difference in reactions cannot be chalked up to simple financial illiteracy. People find beef that is 80 percent lean more appealing than beef that is 20 percent fat. They are more impressed by condoms whose manufacturers boast of a 95 percent success rate rather than a 5 percent failure rate. They are more supportive of taxes on the rich when the existing level of income inequality is described in terms of how much more the rich earn than the median wage earner tan when it is described in terms of how much less the median wage earner earns than the rich.
So when word got out that the main tea competitor, Tetley, had a bizarre new product up its sleeve, we and our client weren’t unduly worried. PG Tips came in square tea bags, like the rest of the market in those days. Tetley’s new tea idea was round bags. This made no sense at all to us. The tea would taste just the same, wouldn’t it? We gave it a few months, at best. But how wrong we were. People loved the new round bags Tetley shot to brand leader in a year. We were reminded of this when we visited a Paul Smith exhibition. Among his mantras was: “Don’t make sense”
Philip Tetlock has done one of the most comprehensive studies of forecasters, their accuracy, and their excuses. When studying experts’ views on a wide range of world political events over a decade, he found that, across the vast array of predictions, experts who reported they had 80 percent or more confidence in their predictions were actually correct only around 45 percent of the time. Across all predictors, the experts were little better than coin tossers.