Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials. We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves — a “try before you buy” philosophy for the world of ideas. When we’re trying to build a case for something, most of us instinctively grasp for hard numbers. But in many cases this is exactly the wrong approach. In the sole U.S presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable statistics demonstrating the sluggishness of the economy. Instead, he asked a simple question that allowed voters to test for themselves: “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.”
A few year ago, students at Harvard University were asked to make a seemingly straightforward choice: which would they prefer, a job where they made $50,000 a year (option A) or one where they made $100,000 a year (option B)?
Seems like a no-brainer, right? Everyone should take option B. But there was one catch. In option A, the students would get paid twice as much as others, who would only get $25,000. In option B, they would get paid half as much as others, who would get $200,000. So option B would make the students more money overall, but they would be doing worse than others around them.
What did the majority of people choose?
Option A. They preferred to do better than others, even if it meant getting less for themselves. They chose the option that was worse in absolute terms but better in relative terms.
Excerpt from: Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
In 1986, Jonathan Shedler and Melvin Manis, researchers at the University of Michigan, created an experiment to simulate a trial. Subjects were asked to play the role of jurors and were given the transcript of a (fictitious) trial to read. The jurors were asked to assess the fitness of a mother, Mrs. Johnson, and to decide whether her seven-year-old son should remain in her care.
The transcript was constructed to be closely balanced: There were eight arguments against Mrs. Johnson and eight arguments for Mrs. Johnson. All the jurors heard the same arguments. The only difference was the level of detail in those arguments. In one experimental group, all the arguments against her had no extra details; they were pallid by comparison. The other group heard the opposite combination.
As an example, one argument in Mrs. Johnson’s favor said: “Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime.” In the vivid form, the argument added a detail: “He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader.”
An argument against Mrs. Johnson was: “The child went to school with a badly scraped arm which Mrs. Johnson had not cleaned or attended to. The school nurse had to clean the scrape.” The vivid form added the detail that, as the nurse was cleaning the scrape, she spilled Mercurochrome on herself, staining her uniform read.
The researchers carefully tested the arguments with and without vivid details to ensure that they had the same perceived importance — the details were designed to be irrelevant to the judgment of Mrs. Johnson’s worthiness. It mattered that Mrs. Johnson didn’t attend to the scarped arm; it didn’t matter that the nurse’s uniform got stained in the process.
But even though the details shouldn’t have mattered, they did. Jurors who heard the favorable arguments with vivid details judged Mrs. Johnson to be a more suitable parent (5.8 out of 10) than did jurors who heard the unfavorable arguments with vivid details (4.3 out of 10). The details has a big impact.
The American writer and scientist Linus Pauling famously said: ‘The best way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones.’ He was right. Stop staring at a blank screen, waiting for a ‘Eureka!’ moment. Start scribbling. Stick thing on the wall. Create stuff. Share it with others. It’s amazing how often just talking about your ideas leads to new, better ones.
Contrast the following two statements:
- Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing the rock from the sun to the early and hitting the target within one third of a mile if dead center.
- Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing a rock from New York to Los Angeles and hitting the target within two thirds of an inch of dead center.
Which statement seems more accurate?
As you may have guessed, the accuracy levels in both questions are exactly the same, but when different groups evaluated the two statements, 58 percent of respondents ranked the statistic about the sun to the earth as “very impressive.” That jumped to 83 percent for the statistic about New York to Los Angeles. We have no human experience, no intuition, about the distance between the sun and the earth, The distance from New York to Los Angeles is much more tangible. (Though, frankly, it’s still far from tangible. The problem is that if you make the distance more tangible — like a football field — then the accuracy becomes intangible. “Throwing, a rock the distance of a football field to an accuracy of 3.4 microns” doesn’t help.)
There are countless ways to price a project.
Thinking about how long it will take and adding up the days is a start. But really it’s about the value of an idea, not the time spent. In a famous Victorian court case, John Ruskin taunted the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler that a painting that had taken just two days to make was not ‘worth’ the fee of 200 guineas. The painter responded: “I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”
This is an old presentation trick, but it’s good.
It was started by an advertising agency that would produce carefully worked-out presentation concepts, but always include a blue duck somewhere in the visual. When it came to the feedback, clients would say: “We love it, apart from just one thing — can you take the duck out?”
The creatives would sign a little, make a brief but lacklustre defence of their ultramarine mascot, then agree to the change — knowing everything else was going through. And they used this trick for years.
It’s a simple bit of psychology, really, reflecting the human desire to meddle ever so slightly. The clients would feel they had made a crucial intervention, little knowing that they had been deceived into approving everything else.
In his far from mediocre book Risk Intelligence, Dylan Evans describes a professional backgammon player by the name of J.P. “He would make a few deliberate mistakes to see how well his opponent would exploit them. If the other guy played well, J.P. would stop playing. That way, he wouldn’t throw good money after bad. In other words, J.P. know something that most gamblers don’t: he knew when not to bet.” He knew which opponents would force him out of his circle of competence, and he learned to avoid them.
The problem of more data was investigated by Paul Slovic, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon. He ran an experiment with professional horseracing handicap setters in which they were given a list of 88 variables that were useful in predicting a horse’s performance. The participants then had to predict the outcome of the race and their confidence in their prediction. They repeated these tasks with access to different levels of data: either 5, 10, 20, 30 or 40 of the variables.
The results were illuminating. Accuracy was the same regardless of the number of variables used. However, overconfidence grew as more data was harnessed. Experts overestimated the importance of factors that had a limited value. It was only when five data points were used that accuracy and confidence were well calibrated.
Marketers face a similar set of problems. They have access to more data than ever before and many believe that because the information exists they should use it. The Slovic experiment suggests otherwise. We shouldn’t harness data just because we can. Instead, as much time should be spent choosing which data sets to ignore as which to use.
One morning in 1984 Barry Marshall skipped breakfast and asked his colleagues to meet him in the lab. While they watched in horror, he chugged a glass filled with about a billion H. pylori. It tasted like swamp water”, he said.
Within a few days, Marshall was experiencing pain, nauseam and vomiting — the classic symptoms of gastritis, the early stage of an ulcer. Using an endoscope, his colleagues found that his stomach lining, previously pink and healthy, was now red an inflamed. Like a magician, Marshal then cured himself with a course of antibiotics and bismuth (the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol).
Even after this dramatic demonstration, the battle wasn’t over. Other scientists quibbled with the demonstration. Marshall had cued himself before he developed a full-blown ulcer, they argued, so maybe he had just generated ulcer symptoms rather than a genuine ulcer. But Marshall’s demonstration gave a second wind to supporters of the bacteria theory, and subsequent research amassed more and more evidence in his favor.
In 1994, ten years later, the National Institutes of Health finally endorsed the idea that antibiotics were the preferred treatment for ulcers.
Other people conjecture based on case studies and anecdotes. Because so many of the most popular YouTube videos are either funny or cute — involving babies or kittens — you commonly hear that humor or cuteness is a key ingredient for virality.
But these “theories” ignore the fact that many funny or cute videos never take off. Sure, some cat clips get millions of views, but those are the outliers, not the norm. Most get less than a few dozen.
You may as well observe that Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Bill Cosby are all famous and conclude that changing your name to Bill is the route to fame and fortune. Although the initial observation is correct, the conclusion is patently ludicrous. By merely looking at a handful of viral hits, people miss the fact that many of those features also exist in content that failed to attract any audience whatsoever. To fully understand what causes people to share things, you have to look at both successes and failures. And whether, more often than not, certain characteristics are linked to success.
Excerpt from: Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
Another study, conducted by Shafir and a colleague, Donald Redelmeier, demonstrates that paralysis can also be caused by choice. Imagine, for example, that you are in college and you face the following choice one evening. What would you do?
- Attend a lecture by an author you admire who is visiting just for the evening, or
- Go to the library and study.
Studying doesn’t look so attractive compared with a once in a life-time lecture. When this choice was given to actual college students only 21 percent decided to study.
Suppose, instead, you had been given three choices:
- Attend the lecture.
- Go to the library and study.
- Watch a foreign film that you’ve been wanting to see.
Does you answer differ? Remarkably, when a different group of students were given the three choices, 30 percent decided to study – double the number who did before. Giving students two good alternatives to studying rather than one paradoxically makes them less likely to choose either.
By early evening, the decision is finalised as to what the front page (“the splash”) will look like. At the Sun, this was one of the most important jobs of the editor. Before, say, 2010, the newspaper could shift an extra 100,000 copies on the strength of having a good story on its front; that is a rarity now indeed. The craftsmanship of headlines, though, is one of the great joys of tabloid journalism. Sun meeting rooms are named after famous headlines of its past: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea (on the threat of Kim Jong-Il); Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrrocious (on a Scottish football match); and so on. Headline-writing is a competitive sport: people sit at their desk, brows furrowed trying to come up with the funniest line. At the Sun there is a headline of the month competition too.
Everywhere potholes are a problem, everywhere councils ignore the,
Sure they’ll fix them, eventually, when they get around to it.
Which usually means months, sometimes a year later.
One cyclist in Bury decided to elevate potholes up the council’s list of priorities.
He knew the council couldn’t be bothered about potholes.
But the council were red hot on covering up graffiti.
Graffiti left on display was like advertising that the council weren’t doing their job.
It was very visible so it was covered up immediately.
He decided to use graffiti to solve the pothole problem.
Wherever there was a large pothole in the road he sprayed a set of genitals round it.
Badly drawn — just balls and a knob, crude in every way.
But suddenly the potholes stood out.
Suddenly the potholes, which had previously been invisible to the council, were seen to be outraging public decency.
The potholes, which had been ignore for months, were repaired and the graffiti removed within forty-eight hours.
Excerpt from: Creative Mischief by Dave Trott
In 1971, as the Vietnam War was heading into its sixteenth year, congressman Robert Steele from Connecticut and Morgan Murphy from Illinois made a discovery that stunned the American public. While visiting the troops, they had learned that over 15 percent of U.S. soldiers stationed there were heroin addicts. Follow-up research revealed that 35 percent of service members in Vietnam had tried heroin and as many as 20 percent were addicted — the problem was even worse than they had initially thought.
The discovery led to a flurry of activity in Washington, including the creation of the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention under President Nixon to promote prevention and rehabilitation and to track adducted service members when they returned home.
Lee Robins was one of the researchers in charge. In a finding that completely upended the accepted beliefs about addiction, Robins found that when soldiers who had been heroin users returned home, only 5 percent of them became re-addicted within a year, and just 12 percent relapsed within three years. In other words, approximately nine out of ten soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam eliminated their addition nearly overnight.
This finding contradicted the prevailing view at the time, which considered heroin addiction to be a permanent and irreversible condition. Instead, Robins revealed that addiction could spontaneously dissolve if there was a radical change in the environment. In Vietnam, soldiers spent all day surrounded by cues triggering heroin use: it was easy to access, they were engulfed by the constant stress of war, they build friendships with fellow soldiers who were also heroin users, and they were thousands of miles from home. Once a soldier returned to the United States, though, he found himself in an environment devoid of those triggers. When the context changed, so did the habit.
Humans are herd animals. We want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers. Such inclinations are essential to our survival. For most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in tribes. Becoming separated from the tribe — or worse, being cast out — was death sentence. “The lone wold dies, but the pack survives.”
Meanwhile, those who collaborated and bonded with other enjoyed increased safety, mating opportunities, and access to resources. As Charles Darwin noted, “In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” As a result, one of the deepest human desires is to belong. And this ancient preference exerts a powerful influence on our modern behaviours.
How does a zipper work? Rate your understanding on a scale from 0 (no clue) to 10 (easy-peasy). Write the number down. Now sketch out on a piece of paper how a zipper actually works. Add a brief description, as through you were trying to explain it very precisely to someone who’d never seen a zipper before. Give yourself a couple of minutes. Finished? Now reassess your understanding of zippers on the same scale.
Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, researchers at Yale University confronted hundreds of people with equally simple questions. How does a toilet work? How does a battery work? The results are always the same: we think we understand these things reasonably well until we’re force to explain them. Only then do we appreciate how many gaps there are in our knowledge You’re probably similar. You were convinced you understood more than you actually did. That’s the knowledge illusion.
How much pleasure do you get from your car? Put it on a scale from 0 to 10. If you don’t own a car, then do the same for your house, your flat, your laptop, anything like that. Psychologists Norbert Schwarz, Daniel Kahneman and Jing Xu asked motorists this question and compared their responses with the monetary value of the vehicle. The result? The more luxurious the car, the more pleasure it gave the owner. A BMW 7 Series generates about fifty percent more pleasure than a Ford Escort. So far, so good: when somebody sinks a load f money in a vehicle, at least they felt a good return on their investment in the form of joy.
Now, let’s ask a slightly different question: how happy were you during your last car trip? The researchers posed the question too, and again compared the motorists’ answers with values of their cars. The result? No correlation. No matter how luxurious or how shabby the vehicle, the owners’ happiness ratings were all equally rock bottom.
Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films “Ugly Babies”. They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing — in the form of time and patience — in order to grow.
So he wrote to the Russian embassy in Washington DC.
He told them the story about the poverty-like conditions the people of Vulcan, West Virginia were living in.
He told them America couldn’t even afford to build a bridge.
He knew that Russia had a foreign aid budget that could help build a bridge where America couldn’t afford to do it.
The Russians know this would be a major propaganda coup. They immediately sent a reporter, Iona Andronov, to visit Vulcan.
He could write the story about how the USA couldn’t support their own people.
How the poor people of America were crying out to Russia for help.
But the Russian embassy had to get permission from the US State Department before making the trip.
The US government wanted to know why they were going to the middle of nowhere.
When they found out about Vulcan’s bridge, things began happening.
This could embarrass the US worldwide.
The government told the state to fix it, NOW.
But 10 x 1 does not equal 1 x 10. Imagine you have ten roles to fill, and you ask ten colleagues to each hire one person. Obviously each person will try to recruit the best person they can find — that’s the same as asking on person to choose the ten best hires he can find, right? Wrong. Anyone choosing a group of ten people will instinctively deploy a much wider variance than someone hiring one person. The reason for this is that with one person we look for conformity, but with ten people we look for complementarity.
If you were only allowed to eat one food, you might choose the potato. Barring a few vitamins and trace minerals, it contains all the essential amino acids you need to build proteins, repair cells and fight diseases – eating just five a day would support you for weeks. However, if you were told you could only eat ten food for the rest of your life, you would not choose ten different types of potato. In fact, you may not choose potatoes at all — you would probably choose something more varied.
Let me give a simple example. The Uber map is a psychological moonshot, because it does not reduce the waiting time for a taxi but simply makes waiting 90 per cent less frustrating. This innovation came from the founder’s flash of insight (while watching a James Bond film, no less) that, regardless of what we say, we are much bothered by the uncertainty of waiting than by the duration of a wait. The invention of the map was perhaps equivalent to multiplying the number of cabs on the road by a factor of ten — not because waiting times got any shorter, but because they felt ten times less irritating.
As Napoleon said: “Never interrupt your opponent when he is making a mistake.”
Years ago, Avis ran its famous campaign: “We’re only no 2. We try harder.”
It worked so well it began to harm morale at Hertz, the market leader.
Hertz was forced to respond with a single campaign saying: “For years, Avis has been telling you Hertz is no 1. Now we’re going to tell you why.”
It worked for Hertz employees, but for the public it cemented Avis as an equal competitor to Hertz.
Years later, Pepsi ran “The Pepsi challenge” saying seven out of 10 cola-drinkers preferred the taste of Pepsi to Coke.
Coke was so spooked it announce it was changing its formula.
On the day it did, all Pepsi employees were given a day off.
Because Coke was doing Pepsi’s advertising for it.
A few years back, the RAC ran a campaign about how it could get to a broken-down car faster than anyone else.
Rupert Howell has the AA as a client at that time.
He told me it was all he could do to stop the AA client from running a campaign replying to the RAC claim and disproving it.
Rupert managed to stop the AA from doing the RAC’s advertising for it.
Because Rupert understood what RAC was trying to do.
We shouldn’t be frightened of provoking a response, we should be trying to provoke a response.
Especially from someone bigger.
If we can use our budget to provoke our opponent into spending their money answering us back, it’s a very effective way of positioning ourselves in the public’s mind.
By making them spend their money doing our advertising for us.
Excerpt from: Campaign Magazine article by Dave Trott
In the summer of 1830, Victor Hugo was facing an impossible deadline. Twelve months earlier, the French author had promised his publisher a new book. But instead of writing, he spent that year pursuing other projects, entertaining guests, and delaying his work. Frustrated, Hugo’s publisher responded by setting a deadline less than six months away. The book had to be finished by February 1831.
Hugo concocted a strange plan to beat his procrastination. He collected all of his clothes and asked an assistant to lock them away in a large chest. He was left with nothing to wear except a large shawl. Lacking any suitable clothing to go outdoors, he remained in his study and wrote furiously during the fall and winter of 1830. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published two weeks early on January 14, 1831.
Legendary physicist Richard Feynman encapsulated this way that scientists communicate uncertainty and how they strive to avoid the extremes of rights and wrong when he said, “Statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.” (This appears in a collection of his short works, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.)
John Stuart Mill is one of the heroes of thinking in bets. More than one hundred and fifty years after writing On Liberty, his thinking on social and political philosophy remains startlingly current. One of the frequent themes in On Liberty is the importance of diversity of opinion. Diversity and dissent are not only checks on fallibility, but the only means of testing the ultimate truth of an opinion: “The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.”
Robert Zion, the social psychologist, once described cognitive psychology as ‘social psychology with all the interesting variables set to zero’. The point he was making is that humans are a deeply social species (which may mean that research into human behaviour or choices in artificial experiments where there is no social contest isn’t really all that useful). In the real work, social context is absolutely critical. For instance, as the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu observes, gift giving is viewed as a good thing in most human societies, but it only takes a very small change in context to make a gift an insult rather than a blessing; returning a present to the person who has given it to you, for example, is one of the rudest things you can do. Similarly, offering people money when they do something you like makes perfect sense according to economic theory and is called an incentive, but this does not mean you should try and pay your spouse for sex.
In a 1992 survey by W. H. Desvousges and colleagues, people were told that birds were dying because they became mired in uncovered pools of oil at refineries. This (fictitious) problem could be solved by putting nets over the pools. The experiment asked participants to indicate how much they would be willing to pay for nets to save the birds The researchers tried telling different groups that 2,000 birds were being killed a year — or 20,000 birds, or 200,000 birds. The answers didn’t depend on the number of birds! In all cases, the average dollar amount was $80. Evidently, all that registered was A lot of birds are being killed. We should do something about it.
The advertising agency J. Walter Thompson used to set a test for aspiring copywriters. One of the questions was simple: ‘Here are two identical 25-cent coins. Sell me the one on the right.’ One successful candidate understood the idea of alchemy. ‘I’ll take the right-hand coin and dip it in Marilyn Monroe’s bag. Then I’ll sell you a genuine 25-cent coin as owned by Marilyn Monroe.’
In maths it is a rule that 2 + 2 = 4. In psychology, 2 + 2 can equal more or less than 4. It’s up to you.
In 1960, Dr. Suess made a bet with Bennett Cerf, the cofounder of Random House, that he could write a book relying on only fifty different words. Though challenging, the bet resulted in Green Eggs and Ham, a classic that’s beloved in my house (and maybe yours) and Dr. Seuss’s bestselling book.
Constraints, then, can open our minds and drive creativity rather than hinder it. Poetic masterworks spring from the boundaries of verse and rhyme. Masterpieces of Renaissance art started as commissions in which the painter was bound to adhere to narrow specifications and subject matter, materials, color, and size. In our own work, constraints take many different dorms, from tight budgets to standardization. If you ask a team to design and build a product, you might get a handful of good ideas. But if you ask that same team to design and build the same product within a tight budget, you’ll likely see even more creative results. Research examining how people design new products, cook meals, and even fix broken toys finds that budget constraints increase resourcefulness and lead to better solutions.