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.
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.
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.