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One battery in particular was critical to the bombardment due to its elevated terrain. But it was also the most vulnerable to counterattack, thus making it the most dangerous to operate. Bonaparte’s superiors informed him that no soldier would volunteer to man the battery. Walking through camp in contemplation he spotted a printing machine which gave him an idea. He created a sign to hang near the battery: “The battery of the men without fear.” When the other soldiers saw it the next morning they clamoured to earn the honor of operating that cannon. Bonaparte himself wielded a ramrod alongside his gunners. The cannon was manned day and night. The French won the battle; Bonaparte won the acclaim.
A survey of US college students asked them to reach to a description of a professor teaching at a top tier school. For some students we described the 45 year-old professor as wearing a t-shirt and having a beard. For others, we described him as clean-shaven and wearing a tie. The students rated the professor in a t-shirt as having higher status. The perception that an individual is consciously choosing not to conform is critical.
To signal status, deviations from the norm must demonstrate one’s autonomy to behave consistently with one’s own inclinations and to pay for the cost of nonconformity.
For example, in 2017 budget airline Ryanair announced that 92% of their passengers were satisfied with their flight experience. It turned out that their satisfaction survey only permitted the answers, ‘Excellent, very good, good, fair, OK’.
It is not only sports teams that are ranked in league tables. Take the example of the PISA Global Education Tables, which compare different countries’ school systems in mathematics. A change in league table position between 2003 and 2013 was strongly negatively correlated with initial position, meaning that countries at the top tended to go down, and those at the bottom tended to go up. The correlation was -0.60, and some theory shows that if the rankings were complete chance and all that was operating were regression-to-the-mean, the correlation would be expected to be -0.71, not very different from what was observed. This suggest the differences between countries were far less than claimed, and that change in league position had little do with changes in teaching philosophy.
I give a final striking example, this time to do with publishers. In 1969, Jerzy Kosinsky’s novel Steps won the American National Book Award for fiction. Eight years later some joker had it retyped and sent the manuscript with no title under a false name to fourteen major publishers and thirteen literary agents in the US including Random House, the firm who originally published it. Of the 27 people to whom it was submitted no one recognised it had been published and all 27 rejected it.
Except from: Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland
They asked 40 owners of iPods how influenced they were by the trendiness of the product relative to their peers. The scale went from one (much less than average) to nine (much more than average), with five as average. So the neutral answer was clearly five. However, the average response from participants was 3.3.
When asking ourselves about such a person’s trustworthiness, we should keep in mind a little tactic compliance practitioners often use to assure us of their sincerity: They will seem to argue to a degree against their own interest. Correctly done, this can be a subtly effective device for proving their honesty. Perhaps they will mention a small shortcoming in their position or product (“Oh, the disadvantages of Benson & Hedges”). Invariably, though, the drawback will be a secondary one that is easily overcome by a more significant advantages — “Listerine, the taste you hate three times a day”; “Avis: We’re number two, but we try harder”; “L’Oreal, a bit more expensive but worth it.” By establishing their basic truthfulness on minor issues, the compliance professionals who se this ploy can then be more believable when stressing the important aspects of their argument.
Consider Nespresso. They sell in distinctive pods, which provide the right amount of coffee for a cup. Because they’re sold in that unit we compare their price to other places selling by the cup, such as Costa or Caffe Nero. When compared to the £2.50 Costa charge, Nespresso pods, costing 30p-37p, feel like a bargain.
But stop for a second and remember back to when they launched. If Nespresso had sold their coffee in standard packaging the natural comparison set would have other brands of roast and ground coffee, like Taylor’s or illy. Their price would have been judged against the norm for other coffees — roughly £4.00 for 227g. Even with tens of millions of pounds of advertising they could never have persuaded consumers to pay £34 for a 454g bag. But that £34 figure equates to 7p per gram, exactly what they’re charging now.
In 2010, a group of mathematicians, historians and athletes were tasked with identifying certain names that represented significant figures within each discipline. They had to discern whether Johannes de Groot or Benoit Theron were famous mathematicians, for instance, and they could answer, Yes, No, or Don’t Know. As you might hope, the experts were better at picking out the right people (such as Johannes de Groot, who really was a mathematician) if they fell within their discipline. But they were also more likely to say they recognised the made-up figures (in this case, Benoit Theron). When their self-perception of expertise was under question, they would rather take a guess and ‘over-claim’ the extent of their knowledge than admit their ignorance with a ‘don’t know’.
After receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918, Max Planck went on tour across Germany. Wherever he was invited, he delivered the same lecture on new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur grew to know it by heart: ‘It has to be boring giving the same speech each time, Professor Planck. How about I do it for you in Munich? You can sit n the front row and wear my chauffeur’s cap. That’d give us both a bit of variety.’ Planck liked the idea, so that evening the driver held a long lecture on quantum mechanics in front of a distinguished audience. Later, a physics professor stood up with a question. The driver recoiled: ‘Never would I have thought that someone from such an advanced city as Munich would ask such a simple question! My chauffeur will answer it.’
Houdini himself seems to have intuitively understood the vulnerability of the intelligent mind. ‘As a rule, I have found that the greater brain a man has, and the better he is educated, the easier it has been to mystify him,’ he once told Conan Doyle.
People are unrealistically optimistic even when the stakes are high. About 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, and this is a statistic most people have heard. But around the time of the ceremony, almost all couples believe that there is approximately a zero percent chance that their marriage will end in divorce — even those who have already been divorced! (Second marriage, Samual Johnson once quipped, ‘is the triumph of hope over experience.’) A similar point applies to entrepreneurs starting new businesses, where the failure rate is at least 50 percent. In one survey of people staring new businesses (typically small businesses, such a contracting firms, restaurants, and salons), respondents were asked two questions: (a) What do you think is the chance of success for a typical business like yours? (b) What is your chance of success? The most common answers to these questions were 50 percent and 90 percent, respectively, and many said 100 percent to to the second question.
Unrealistic optimism can explain a lot of individual risk taking, especially in the domain of risks to life and health.
Bush’s 8-year term saw the horrific events of September 11th and the controversial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. Many Bush supporters still focus on the positives of his presidency as a justification for his actions, whilst opposing Democrats will argue their candidate, Gore, would have handled the situation better.
We can often ignore opposing evidence in favour of what we believe is correct (see: confirmation bias). Once we’ve made a decision based on the evidence considered, we don’t like looking like we made the wrong one. To help ensure this, we often over-attribute positive features to the options we’ve chosen and negative features to options not chosen, like political candidates. As a result, we feel good about ourselves and our choices, and have less regret for bad decisions. This makes changing incorrect beliefs an incredibly hard task.
Consumers desire for past choices to be rational and well-made (or at least seem to be) makes them more likely to overlook any faults in an effort to convince themselves and others that they made the right decision.
“Monstromart: where shopping is a baffling ordeal” reads the slogan of a fictional supermarket in The Simpsons.
Inside the supermarket, there were whole aisles for one type of product. There were different brands of tomato ketchup as far as the eye could see, bags sugar could be bought in hundreds of varieties, the express checkout had a sign reading: “1,000 items or less”.
In the end, the Simpsons returned to Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart. In doing so, the Simpsons were making a choice to reduce their choice. It wasn’t quite a rational choice, but it made sense. Their unconstrained freedom left them paralysed to make decisions.
There is no denying choice improves the quality of our lives. When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. Choice is essentially freedom, which is fundamental to our well-being. However, like The Simpsons, the choice paradox suggests that offering consumers too much choice can leave them paralysed to make a decision.
I recently watched a competitive swimming heat on television. The race sticks in my mind because 50% of the athletes, four in total, were from the United States. Knowing very little about each participant, nor who the favourite was for the race, at first glance, it looked like the United States had to place in the top three. The result: none of them finished in the top three.
In this case, the size of each category, the country each athlete represented, incorrectly led me to believe they had a better chance of making it into the top three. I incorrectly believed “they had the numbers on their side”.
The category size bias demonstrates how our probability judgments are often inaccurate. Category size can impact the perceived likelihood of a specific outcome, such that an outcome classified into a large (vs small) category is perceived as more likely to occur.
Domestos kills all known germs. Dead’ was an example. But in a world where functional advantages are quickly matched by the competition, brands rarely own these claims for long. In fact, any bleach could make the same claim of Domestos.
And this takes us to the nub of how branding works. Brands succeed not by being different, but by being distinctive. Brands need a distinctive style, tone of voice, and personality. They need to have their own way of saying what they do. An end-line’s job is to sum that up in a memorable way.
Think about two great brand end-lines: Nike’s “Just do it” and Tesco’s “Every little helps”. There”s nothing inherently ownable about these words. Or the sentiments behind them. You couldn’t come up with a more ordinary bunch of words if you tried. But each of these lines reflects an attitude to the category in question that’s clear, distinctive and memorable. And over time, they’ve become inextricable linked to the brands in question.
And that’s the point. “Ownership” takes time and money. The smart marketing directors who bought those successful long-running campaign ideas and end-lines weren’t agonising over wether they were ownable.
The California Roll principle is based on the underlying rule of combining something new with something familiar to make it ‘strangely familiar’. It’s a phenomenon that psychologists like Robert B. Zejonc have labelled the ‘mere-exposure effect’ or the ‘Law of Familiarity’. Humans, understandably, have a tendency to be more comfortable around people and things they are familiar with. There is more than one way to build on this.
Apple does it though a design feature Steve Jobs called ‘skeuomorphism’. It’s a catch-all term for when design cues are taken from common objects or elements in the physical world. The iPhone calendar resembles a physical calendar. The notes app looks like a yellow legal pad. The rubbish bin on the first Mac was exactly like a metal bin. The podcast app when first launched looked like an ancient reel-to-teel tape and iBook looked like a real bookshelf with wood veneers. The familiar elements are not necessary but tap into our memory banks.
If you thought that ambulances, fire engines and police cars have blue lights in order to be seen better — then you thought wrong. Emergency vehicles have blue lights in order not to be seen…. During the Second World War, the Gestapo began to use blue lights on their cars so as not to disturb the blackout of German cities, which was in force to protect them from the bombers of the Allied Forces. Blue lights are difficult to detect when it is dark. After the war, other police forces continued to use blue lights, although it was totally illogical to do so.
This story about the colour of police lights just goes to show how difficult it can be to introduce a better idea, even though the present one is not effective. The same thing is true of red fire engines. Perhaps you have noticed that ambulances and fire engines in many cites are, in fact, bright yellow? A much more suitable colour for emergency vehicles as bright yellow can be seen more easily in traffic both day and night. Although most of those involved in the fire fighting forces knew that red was not the most suitable colour for the job, it took decades before they dared replace their red vehicles. This might be comforting when you have an excellent idea that no one has any time for!
Excerpt from: The Idea Book by Fredrik Härén
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together are monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length, And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals — sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
Excerpt from: On Writing Well by William Zinsser
I was walking down the street when I was approached by an eleven- or twelve-year-old boy. He introduced himself and said that he was selling tickets to the annual Boy Scouts circus to be held on the upcoming Saturday night. He asked if I wished to buy any at five dollars apiece. Since one of the last places I wanted to send Saturday evening was with the Boy Scouts, I declined. “Well,” he said, “if you don’t want to buy any tickets, how about buying some of our big chocolate bars? They’re only a dollar each.” I bought a couple and, right away, realised that something noteworthy had happened. I know that to be the case because: (a) I do not like chocolate bars; (b) I do like dollars; (c) I was standing there with two of his chocolate bars; and (d) he was walking away with two of my dollars.
You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90 per cent of the work. And if you tell all these other people “Here’s this great idea”, then of course they can go off and make it happen. And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product… Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together.
During a famine in 1774, Frederik ordered a national cultivation programme. In a response typical of many towns, the people of Kolberg declared: “The things have neither small nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?”
Frederick’s initial response was more a violent “shove” than a nudge – he threatened to cut the noses and ears off any peasant who did not plant potatoes. However, he soon changed tack. In modern parlance we’d say that he used a bit of “psychology”.
Legend has it that instead of issuing further threats, Frederik ordered his soldiers to establish a heavy and visible guard around the local royal potato fields, yet also instructed them to be deliberately lax in protecting them. At the same time, the local peasants noticed their king’s conspicuous admiration of potato flowers as well as the tubers themselves, and sneaked in to steal and plant the “royal crop”. Within a short time, many potatoes were stolen and soon being widely grown and eaten.
But when Meghan Busse, Duncan Simester and Florian Zettelmayer, academics from MIT and the Kellogg School of Management, investigated they discovered a curious anomaly. In the previous weeks the car companies had been cutting prices so much that the employee discount was generally no better and occasionally more expensive, than existing deals.
The academics hypothesised that it was the price cue, not the price, which mattered. Consumers reacted to the plausibility of the deal rather than the actual discount. When consumers don’t trust brands they treat deals sceptically, but when they’re accompanied by a back story they have more heft.
When you are contemplating promotions don’t rely on an eye-watering discount. Numbers leave customers cold. We’re not natural statisticians – stories move us to action far better.
Whereas with a complicated proposition you dilute and fragment your message.
Less important points don’t add to the communication.
They detract from the most important point.
That’s what the single-minded proposition is all about.
That’s why we need people to make the effort to decide what is absolutely essential.
Not just people who think of what else they can include.
Welding a JCB to a Ferrari doesn’t make a machine that can dig roads at 200 mph.
It makes something that can’t do either job properly.
We found that over the next several weeks, those who had been consuming more energy than their neighbours reduced their energy consumption, by 5.7 per cent. Not much of a surprise there. More interesting, however, was the finding that those who had been consuming less energy than their neighbours actually increased their energy consumption by 88.6 per cent. These results show that what most others are doing acts as something of a “magnetic middle”, meaning that people who deviate from the average tend to be drawn towards it – they change their actions to be more in line with the norm regardless of whether they were previously behaving in a socially desirable or undesirable way.
During the Second World War and the Korean War, doctors and nurses discovered that unconscious soldiers stretchered off the battlefields survived more often if they were laid on their fronts rather than on their backs. On their back, they often suffocated on their own vomit. On their fronts, the vomit could exit and their airways remained open. This observation saved many millions of lives, not just of soldiers. The “recovery position” has since become a global best practice, taught in every first-aid course on the planet. (The rescue workers saving lives after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal had all learned it.)
But a new discovery can easily be generalised too far. In the 1960s, the success of the recovery position inspired new public health advice, against most traditional practices, to put babies to sleep on their tummies. As if any helpless person on their back need just the same help.
The mental clumsiness of a generalisation like this is often difficult to spot. The chain of logic seems correct. When seemingly impregnable logic is combined with good intentions, it becomes nearly impossible to spot the generalisation error. Even thought the data showed that sudden infant deaths went up, not down, it wasn’t’ until 1985 that a group of paediatricians in Hong Kong actually suggested that the prone position might be the cause.
A clear but somewhat narrow majority of Americans today support eliminating the so-called “estate tax,” and a slightly higher percentage would back the elimination of the “inheritance tax,” but more than 70 percent would abolish the “death tax”. Sure, some object that the term “death tax” is inflammatory, but think about it. What was the event that triggered its collection?
The experiments prove that it’s hard to overturn negative opinions. Rejecters of your brand are difficult to convince because they interpret your message through a lens of negativity.
As the legendary stock market investor, Charlie Munger, said:
“The human mind is a lot like the human egg, in that the human egg has a shut-off device. One sperm gets in, and it shuts down so that the nnext one can’t get in. The human mind has a big tendency of the same sort.”
In one telling study, research participant heard sentences with the first part of a key word omitted (which we indicate by “*”), and with different endings of the sentence presented to different participants. Thus, some participants heard “The *eel was on the axle,” and others heard “The *eel was on the orange”. In both cases, the participants reported hearing a coherent sentence – “The wheel was on the axle” in the first case and “The peel was on the orange” in the second – without ever consciously registering the gap. Nor did it register that they themselves had provided the “wh” or “p” they “heard” in order to make sense of the sentence.
In a social media-driven and 24-hour news world, how on earth do you give 60,000 people a preview of what millions can’t wait to see… yet manage to persuade them to keep schtum about it for five days? The answer: you choose your words smartly. Danny Boyle, London 2012 Olympics Artistic Director, displayed a genius understanding of both human nature and the power of the right word when he asked the lucky attendees of his Opening Ceremony dress rehearsal to “#SaveTheSurprise”. Because amazingly, everyone did. How different would it have been, though, if instead had Danny asked them to “Keep It Secret”? The words seem so similar. But the canny choice of the word “surprise” rather than “secret” made all the difference. Everyone wants to know and tell a secret. We can’t help ourselves. It’s human nature. But no-one wants to spoil a surprise, or have a surprise spoiled. The persuasive power of the words we choose… Choose them carefully.
Psychologist Franz Epting explained: “We use diagnostic labels to organise and simplify. But any classification that you come up with,” cautioned Epting, “has got to work by ignoring a lot of other things — with the hope that the things you are ignoring don’t make a difference. And that’s where the rub is. Once you get a label in mind, you don’t notice things that don’t fit within the categories that do make a difference.”
When the US Air Force faced opposition to its flying over residential neighbourhoods someone had the bright idea of circulating much more information about the different aircraft being flown. Though that didn’t reduce the noise level, it certainly change the reactions to it – and as any cognitive psychologist will tell you, most perception is interpretive. “Look – it’s the new F15!” feels very different from, “it’s another bloody plane flying overhead”.
As an aside, as battles continue over airport expansion in the UK and elsewhere, I’m inclined to think that a similar techniques might be used to persuade potentially affected residents as to the benefits of a new runway or airport by offering them generous annual vouchers for flights and holidays around the world from the airport. Rather like the US Air Force’s approach, it might dramatically change how you feel about the noise and be more effective than cash alone. “That’s my holiday to Barbados this year!” you’d think as a plane roars over, giving you a personal and positive interest in the outcome of expansion rather than simply seeing it as an irritation.
An example from Seth Stephens-Davidowitz illustates the problem. He looked at the gender of Katy Perry Facebook fans and found that they were overwhelmingly female. However, Spotify listening data revealed the gender split was much more balanced: Perry was in the top ten artists for both genders. If the music label used the Facebook data to target their advertising they’d be way out.
Does that mean the new data streams are junk and best ignored?
Not at all. Observed data is an improvement on claimed data, but it’s still flawed. To understand customers we need a balanced approach, using multiple techniques. If each technique tells us the same story then we can give it greater credence. If they jar then we need to generate a hypothesis to explain the contradiction.
Let’s go back to the Katy Perry example. A simple explanation would be that while both genders enjoy listening to her, far more women are comfortable expressing that publicly. If a record label wants to sell Katy Perry songs or encourage streaming, then Spotify data would be ideal. However, if they want to promote her concerts, it would be better to use the Facebook numbers. Neither data set is right in any absolutist sense – they are right in certain circumstances.
In the policy world, a good example comes from a programme known as the Nurse Family Partnership (NFP), originally developed and tested by David Olds in the USA. The programme involves a nursing practitioner befriending and supporting a young at-risk mother from the pre-natal stage through the child’s second birthday. It is a well-validated programme that has been shown to reduce violence and abuse of the child, improve educational attainment and even reduce the child’s rate of offending at the age of 15 compared with children from a similar background who did not participate in the programme (at least in the USA).
A less well known but fascinating detail of the NFP is that Olds noted when we introduced it into the UK was that the programme worked much better with mothers having their first child. This isn’t a marginal detail. It is an expensive programme, and so it is incredibly important to make sure that is focuses on the right people, and at the right time, to whom it will make a difference – young, first time mothers.
In general, we might take as an opening mantra something like “learn it first, learn it right”
It is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily. The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really thing about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.
Here’s another example: in World War 2, US paratroopers had a problem with the fact that, allegedly, one in twenty chutes failed in some way. The soliton was to require the packers and inspectors to regularly jump out of airplanes using parachutes chosen at random from the store. The quality of packing then rose to 100 per cent and stayed there. “The packers are all jumpers,” explained on NCO to Stars and Stripes magazine: ” We try to have each man jump once a month. That’s a pretty food way to keep them honest on the tables.”
Excerpt from: One Step Ahead: Notes from the Problem Solving Unit
What is more, the effect was large: groups that has to accommodate an outsider were substantially more likely to reach the correct conclusion — they did so 75 per cent of the time, versus 54 per cent for a homogeneous group and 44 per cent for an individual.
No one knows wether the story’s true, but it is a good one anyway. Ernest Hemingway was sitting having a drink with some writer friends at Luchow’s restaurant in New York. They were taking about this and that, and eventually moved on to what the ideal length of a good novel might be. Hemingway claimed that he could write a novel in six words: the others each bet ten dollars that he couldn’t. Whereupon Hemingway wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” on a napkin. Six words, behind which lies a tragedy. Those who don’t gulp when they read this must have hearts of stone.
Years ago, when The Tonight Show rules late-night TV and when the all the guests weren’t celebrities promoting their latest book, movie, or TV show, host Johnny Carson interviewed the Girl Scout who sold the most cookies that year. This young lady, Markita Andrews, set a cookie sales record that was never broken. What was her technique? In addition to hard work, she used a framing strategy to make her customers view the purchase as a trivial expense.
Markita’s strategy was simple When she knocked on a door, she would firs ask for a $30,000 donation to the Girl Scouts. Naturally, she had no takers on that request. But then she’d ask if they would at least buy a box of Girl Scout cookies. and just about everyone would.
“To withdraw now is to accept a sure loss,” he writes about digging oneself deeper into a political hole, “and that option is deeply unattractive.” When you combine this with the force of commitment, “the option of hanging on will therefore be relatively attractive, even if the chances of success are small and the cost of delaying failure is high.”
When instant cake mixes were introduced in the 1950s as part of a broader trend to simplify the life of the American housewife by minimising manual labour, housewives were initially resistant. The mixes made cooking too easy, making their labour and skill seem undervalued.
Learning this, Betty Crocker, one of the leading manufacturers of mixes, changed their recipe to require adding an egg. This simple change caused sales to skyrocket. Infusing the task with labour appeared to be a crucial ingredient in the product’s success.
When people create products with their own labour, their effort increases their perception of the end product’s valuation. And while some labour is enjoyable and allows for product customisation—both of which might increase valuation—research suggests that labour alone can be sufficient to induce greater liking and value associated with the results.
More than 22 million UK citizens, about one-third of the population, have invested over £68 billion in premium bonds despite the interest rate they offer is well below that offered by other savings products. The reality is, unless you win one of the very large prizes, you will be worse off holding premium bonds than investing elsewhere.
So why are they so popular? It’s down to uncertainty. Uncertainty creates more positive, exciting experiences. We get excited by the unknown. Uncertainty increases one’s investment of effort, time, and money in pursuing rewards—even when the outcome is likely to be worse than more certain alternatives.
In the mid-1990s, there was a shortage of organic cotton—cotton that Patagonia relied on to make its products. While other companies might source non-organic alternatives in the interim, Chouinard’s’ response was “if we have to be in business using an evil product like traditionally grown cotton, we don’t deserve to be in business”.
The big ‘a-ha’ for Chouinard was that you could do something good for the environment that was also good for your business. Patagonia became California’s first B Corporation in January 2012. At the time, the company was turning over $600m in annual revenues and employed around 2000 people.
Patagonia continues to donate 10% of its profits to small-scale environmental campaigns where $10,000-$15,000 can make a real difference. Their Worn Wear initiative encourages the repair, recycling and resale of garments. The company once took a full-page advert in the New York Times with the tagline: “don’t buy this jacket, unless you really need it”.
“Creativity is just connecting things,” Jobs told Wired Magazine. “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had a synthesise new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people… Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and the end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.”
As Harvard social psychologist Joshua Greene put it, “The best way to get people to do something is to tell them their neighbours are already doing it.”
The obsession with easily quantified date crowds out the need for discretion and judgement.
Two examples illustrate the resulting issues. First is the experience of Terry Leahy who, when he was head of marketing at Tesco, analysed the performance of their gluten-free products. The sales data hinted it was an under-performing section – those that bought gluten-free goods only spent a few pounds on these items each shopping trip. A naive interpretation suggested de-listing them to free up valuable shelf space.
However, sceptical of the number, Leahy interviewed gluten-free shoppers and discovered that their choice of supermarket was determined by the availability of those products. They didn’t want to make multiple shopping trips, so the visited whoever had the specialist goods. After all, every shop had milk and eggs but only sone stocked gluten-free goods. Leahy used this insight to launch Tesco’s hugely successful “Free From” range long before the competition.
If unemployment and inflation are up and confidence in the future is down, telling voters that life has gotten worse, while clearly factual, is less effective than asking voters “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan asked Jimmy Carter and the tens of millions of debate listeners this devastating political question in their only face-to-face campaign encounter in 1980. No litany of economic data or political accusation could carry the power of a simple rhetorical question that for most Americans has an equally simple answer. “Are you better off” framed not just the debate, held only five days before the election, but the entire campaign, and it propelled Reagan from a dead even to ta nine-point victory over the incumbent Carter.
“Most of a brand’s customers think and care little about the brand, but the brand manager should care about these people because they represent most of the brand’s sales.” Professor Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow (Oxford University Press).
Even this customers who repeatedly buy from your brand most likely do so out of simple habit and the product delivering on their needs. Contrary to the moonshine widely peddled by many branding and advertising “experts”, it’s not because of some strong emotional bond.
When we exaggerated the role that the brand plays in people’s lives, it leads to self-important and phoney advertising. People are smart enough to realise this and know when they’re being patronised.
In effect, positioning an idea doesn’t merely “frame” it so that it carries a certain meaning; it actually defines the terms of the debate itself.
For example, by almost two-to-one, Americans say we are spending too much on “welfare” (42 percent) rather than too little (23 percent). Yet an overwhelming 68 percent of American think we are spending too little on “assistance to the poor,” versus a mere 8 percent who think we’re spending too much. Think about it: What is assistance to the poor? Welfare! So while the underlying policy in question may be the same, the definition — welfare versus assistance to the poor — and positioning make all the difference in public reaction. If the context is a government program itself, the process and the public hostility is significant. But if the context is the result of that government program, the support is significant.
Cindy Gagnon was backcountry skiing in Canada when she was buried in an avalanche.
Just a few hours later, the people she was skiing with — her friends — acted like nothing had happened. They reveled in the fresh powder, hooting and hollering as they skied home.
How could that be? And what did it mean?
This is a story about a type of denial we all engage in, whether in the wilderness or in our careers. It’s a denial that simultaneously explains — and impedes — our ability for survival. And it might make you think twice about the decisions you make in the future.
Listen: Out There: Denial
… the venture capital business is 100 percent a game of outliers, it is extreme outliers… We have this concept, invest in strength versus lack of weakness. And at first that is obvious, but it’s actually fairly subtle. Which is sort of the default way to do venture capital, is to check boxes. So “really good founder, really good idea, really good products, really good initial customers. Check, check, check. Okay this is reasonable, I’ll put money in it.” What you find with those sort of checkbox deals, and they get done all the time, but what you find is that they often don’t have something that really makes them really remarkable and special. They don’t have an extreme strength that makes them an outlier. On the other side of that, the companies that have the really extreme strengths often have serious flaws. So one of the cautionary lessons of venture capital is, if you don’t invest on the basis of serious flaws, you don’t invest in most of the big winners.
There’s another risk factor among the outlets that consider themselves to be “quality” journalism – that writers become more concerned with the opinion of other journalists than with the audience. This is a concern that dates back at least to the 1970s. “Journalists write for other journalists, the people they have lunch with rather than the reader,” an unnamed journalist said at the time, leading one academic to conclude: “Their image of the audience is hazy and unimportant… they care primarily about the reaction of the editor and their fellow-reporters.”
This tendency is exacerbated in US award culture, where the most prestigious prizes favour journalism written in great length – often 10,000 words or more and presented in a dense, discursive fashion. These piece are often, for a journalist like me, a joy to read and are often produced over the course of months. They are often the very best articles their outlets produce – but it’s not hard to argue that they’re not as accessible or impactful as they could be.
Take, as proof, what happened when psychologist Thomas Moriarty staged thefts on a New York City beach to see if onlookers would risk personal harm to halt the crime. In the study, a research accomplice would put a beach blanket down five feet from the blanket of a randomly chosen individual – the experimental subject. After a couple of minutes on the blanked spent relaxing and listening to music from a portable radio, the accomplice would stand up and leave the blanket to stroll down the beach, A few minutes later, a second researcher, pretending to be a thief, would approach, grab the radio, and try to hurry away with it. As you might guess, under normal conditions, subjects were very reluctant to put themselves in harms way by challenging the thief – only four people did so in the twenty times that the theft was staged. But when the same procedure was tried another twenty times, with a slight twist, the results were drastically different. In these incidents before taking his stroll, the accomplice would simple ask the subject to please “watch my things,” which each of them agreed to do. Now, propelled by the rule for consistency, nineteen of the twenty subjects became virtual vigilantes, running after and stopping the thief.
In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we examine an old insight about happiness and giving. It’s an insight that is now backed up by behavioral science.
The episode begins with a scene from the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. From there we hear from the founder and CEO of Charity: Water, Scott Harrison. When Scott turned 18, he moved to New York City and got a job as a nightclub promoter. He lived a hedonistic lifestyle that included private jets and exotic parties. He should have been on top of the world, but he was miserable. It wasn’t until Scott moved to one of the poorest countries in the world that he started to find fulfillment. You can learn more about Scott’s story and his incredible transformation in his new book Thirst.
Next Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton explores the topic of happiness and spending. He’s the co-author of a study on the subject of happiness and spending, and the book Happy Money: The New Science of Smarter Spending.
Finally, we hit the streets to conduct an experiment. We gave out five dollar bills to random people and asked them to spend it on themselves or give it away. Which group do you think will experience a greater level of happiness?
The spreadsheet is a tool, but it is also a worldview — reality by the numbers… Because spreadsheets can do so many important things, those who use them tend to lose sight of the crucial fact that the imaginary businesses that they can create on their computers are just that — imaginary. You can’t really duplicate a business inside a computer, just aspects of a business. And since numbers are the strength of spreadsheets, the aspects that get emphasised are the one easily embodied in numbers. Intangible factors aren’t so easily quantified.
Excerpt from: The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller
Those who employ it can cash in on its influence without any appearance of having structured the situation in their favor. Retail clothiers are a good example. Suppose a man enters a fashionable men’s store and says that he wants to buy a three-piece suit and a sweater. If you were the salesperson, which would you show him first to make him likely to spend the most money?
Clothing stores instruct their sales personnel to sell the costly item first. Common sense might suggest the reverse: If a man has just spent a lot of money to purchase a suit, he may be reluctant to spend very much more on the purchase of a sweater. But clothiers know better. They behave in accordance with what the contrast principle would suggest: Sell the suit first, because when it comes time to look at sweaters, even expensive ones, their prices will not seem as high in comparison. A man might bulk at the idea of spending $95 for a sweater, but if he has just bought a $495 suit, a $95 sweater does not seem excessive. The same principle applies to a man who wishes to buy the accessories (shirts, shoes, belt) to go along with his new suit.
Contrary to the commonsense view, the evidence supports the contrast-principle prediction. As sales motivation analysts Whitney, Hubin, and Murphy state, “The interesting thing is that even when a man enters a clothing stores with the express purpose of purchasing a suit, he will almost always pay more for whatever accessories he buys if he buys them after the suit purchase than before.”
A while back Inc. magazine asked executives at six hundred companies to estimate the percentage of their workforce who could name the company’s top priorities. The executives predicted that 64 percent would be able to name them. When Inc. then asked employees to name the priorities, only 2 percent could do so. This is not the exception but the rule. Leaders are inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do, when in fact they don’t This is why it’s necessary to drastically over-communicate priorities. The leaders I visited with were not shy about this.
At the end of the day, after all our tasks are done, we may not realize the fatigue we feel due to all of the things we’ve left undone.
In this edition of Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke talk about the so-called Zeigarnik Effect.
Also, check out the article Rebecca McInroy references in this week’s show here.
In here delightful book, On Speaking Well, Peggy Noonan (who wrote speeches for former Presidents Bush and Reagan) tells a story about Coco Chanel that illustrates this important distinction. Chanel believed that the hallmark of a great dress was that it didn’t call too much attention to itself. Thus if a woman walked into a room wearing one of her dresses and everyone said, “What a fabulous dress!” she had failed. Success came when the woman walked into the room and people said, “You look fabulous!”
In the same way, a presenter fails if people say “What a great presentation!”.
At a busy New York City subway station we hired researchers to count the number of commuters who donated to a street musician as they walked past.
After a short time a small change was made to the situation that had an immediate and impressive impact. Just before an approaching (and unsuspecting) commuter reached the musician, another person (who was in on the act) would drip a few coins into the musician’s hat in view of the approaching commuter. The result? An eight-fold increase in the number of commuters who chose to make a donations.
In a series of post-study interviews with commuters who did donate, every one of them failed to attribute their action to the fact that they had just seen someone else give money first. Instead they provided alliterative justifications: “I liked the song he was playing”; “I’m a generous person”; and “I felt sorry for the guy.”
The barrier created by thinking “I may make a fool of myself if I ask this” can mean that starting points and new directions for thinking remain undiscovered. Always ask the questions that seem too obvious, or those you think you’re supposed to know the answers to. When industrial designer Kenneth Grange was briefed to develop new express trains for British Rail in the 1970s, a seeming naive question popped into his head; “What exactly are the buffers on the locomotive for?” Expecting to be told “They’re to stop the trains crashing into stations, stupid!”, instead he learnt that they were for shunting carriages — a redundant activity from a bygone era.
We all spend a lot of time complaining about incompetence, but as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in a talk he gave at High Point University, overconfidence is the far bigger problem. Why? Incompetence is a problem that inexperienced people have, and all things being equal, we don’t entrust inexperienced people with all that much power or authority. Overconfidence is usually the mistake of experts, and we do give them a lot of power and authority. Plain and simple, incompetence is frustrating, but the people guilty of it usually can’t screw things up that bad. The people guilty of overconfidence can do more damage.
Excerpt from: Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker
Emotions get people to change their behavior. In his show Crowd Control, Dan Pink tried to get people to stop illegally using handicapped parking spots. When Dan’s team changed the handicapped signs so they has a picture of a person in a wheelchair on them, illegal parking in the spots didn’t go down — it topped altogether. Seeing a person’s face, thinking about how someone else might feel, made all the difference.
Excerpt from: Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker
The second reaction to the the law was more subtle and more general than the deliberate defiance of the smugglers and hoarders. Spurred by the tendency to want what they could no longer have, the majority of Miami consumers came to see phosphate cleaners as better products than before. Compared to Tampa residents, who were not affected by the Dade County ordinance, the citizens of Miami rated phosphates detergents as gentler, more effective in cold water, better whiteners and fresheners, more powerful on stains. Affect passage of the law, they had even come to believe that phosphate detergents poured more easily than did the Tampa consumers.
Once derided, the successors to muzak have grown more sophisticated – and influential – than any of us realise.
No professionals suffer more from the confirmation bias than business journalists. Often, they formulate an easy theory, pad it out with two or three pieces of ‘evidence’ and call it a day. For example: “Google is so successful because the company nurtures a culture of creativity.” Once the idea is on paper, the journalist corroborates it by mentioning a few other prosperous companies that foster ingenuity. Rarely does the writer seek out disconfirming evidence, which in this instance would be struggling businesses that live and breathe creativity or, conversely, flourishing firms that are utterly uncreative. Both groups have plenty of members, but the journalist simply ignores them. If he or she were to mention just one, the storyline would be ruined.
Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
One successful example was Sainsbury’s in 2004 who realised much supermarket shopping was done in a daze. “Sleep shopping” as they termed it. Shoppers were buying the same items week in, week out — restricting themselves to the same 150 items despite there being 30,000 on offer.
AMV BBDO, Sainsbury’s creative agency, went to great lengths to dramatise the extent of sleep shopping. They hired a man dressed in a gorilla suit and sent him to a Sainsbury’s to do his week’s shopping. They questioned shoppes as they were leaving the store and a surprisingly low percentage had noticed him. When shoppers are on autopilot it’s hard to grab their attention.
Excerpt from: The Choice Factory by Richard Shotton
The McNamara fallacy (also known as quantitative fallacy), named for Robert McNamara, the United States Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, involves making a decision based solely on quantitative observations (or metrics) and ignoring all others. The reason given is often that these other observations cannot be proven.
“The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.”
– Daniel Yankelovich “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business.” (1972)
The fallacy refers to McNamara’s belief as to what led the United States to defeat in the Vietnam War—specifically, his quantification of success in the war (e.g. in terms of enemy body count), ignoring other variables.
Excerpt from: McNamara fallacy, Wikipedia
After we talked in my office one day about scarcity and exclusivity of information, he decided to do a study using his sales staff. The company’s customers—buyers for supermarkets or other retail food outlets—were phoned as usual by a salesperson and asked for a purchase in one of three ways. One set of customers heard a standard sales presentation before being asked for their orders. Another set of customers heard the standard sales presentation plus information that the supply of imported beef was likely to be scarce in the upcoming months. A third group received the standard sales presentation and the information about a scarce supply of beef, too; however, they also learned that the scarce-supply news was not generally available information—it had come, they were told, from certain exclusive contacts that the company had. Thus the customers who received this last sales presentation learned that not only was the availability of the product limited, so also was the news concerning it—the scarcity double whammy.
The results of the experiment quickly become apparent when the company salespeople began to urge the owner to buy more beef because there wasn’t enough in the inventory to keep up with all the orders they were receiving. Compared to the customers who got only the standard sales appeal, those who were also told about the future scarcity of beef bought more than twice as much.