On a little bit of controversy going a long way

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

On how our habits can be changed by environment

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.

Excerpt from: Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear

On Social Proof’s deep roots

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.

Excerpt from: Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear

On the Knowledge Illusion

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.

Excerpt from: The Art of the Good Life: Clear Thinking for Business and a Better Life by Rolf Dobelli

On how higher prices increase joy but not happiness

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.

Excerpt from: The Art of the Good Life: Clear Thinking for Business and a Better Life by Rolf Dobelli

On how Pixar’s most original and successful films started out as “Ugly Babies”

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.

Excerpt from: Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall

On using political influence creatively to solve problems

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.

Excerpt from: Creative Blindness (And How To Cure It): Real-life stories of remarkable creative vision by Dave Trott

On increasing the diversity of your team

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.

Excerpt from: Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense by Rory Sutherland

On reframing the frustration of waiting times

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.

Excerpt from: Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense by Rory Sutherland

On the danger of a market leader responding to a smaller brands claims

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

On the value of removing temptation rather than trying to resist it

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.

Excerpt from: Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear

On the need to be comfortable with uncertainty

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.)

Excerpt from: Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke

On the importance of exposing our ideas to people who disagree with them

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.”

Excerpt from: Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke

On the importance of social context when interpreting messages

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.

Excerpt from: Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense by Rory Sutherland

On how big numbers fail to move us

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.

Excerpt from: Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It) by William Poundstone

In psychology, 2 + 2 can equal more or less than 4

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.

Excerpt from: Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense by Rory Sutherland

On the power of constraints

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.

Excerpt from: Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life by Francesca Gino

On costly signals being more powerful

This type of public grandstanding is common in the animal world, too. Israeli ethologist Amotz Zahavi noted that animals often engage in showy and even dangerous displays of courage to attract mates and raise their stats. Male peacocks show off their gorgeous plumage in part to demonstrate to females that they ca support the heavy weight, an evolutionary disadvantage. (Large tail feathers translate into slower running and a reduced ability to hide from predators.) Antelopes often engage in stotting: They leap acrobatically straight into the air when hungry cheetahs are pursuing them, even though sprinting straight for the horizon is a better move. The animals’ dangerous waste of energy conveys strength, telling the cheetah, “Don’t even bother trying.” Similarly, guppies swim right under their predators’ noses before darting away. In evolution, it seems, survival of the fittest only captures part of the story.

Excerpt from: Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life by Francesca Gino

 

On basing decisions on myths and anecdotes

The study of marketing is so young that we would be arrogant to believe that we know it all, or even that we have got the basics right yet. We can draw an analogy with medical practice. For centuries this noble profession has attracted some of the best and brightest people in society, who were typically far better educated than other professionals. Yet for 2,500 years these experts enthusiastically and universally taught and practised bloodletting (a generally useless and often fatal ‘cure’). Only vet recently, about 80 years ago, medical professional started doing the very opposite, and today blood transfusions save numerous lives every day. Marketing manager operate a bit like medieval doctors — working on anecdotal experience, impressions and myth-based explanations.

Excerpt from: The Choice Factory: 25 behavioural biases that influence what we buy by Richard Shotton

On the danger of priming in surveys

The responses to questions can also be influenced by what has been asked beforehand, a process known as priming. Official surveys of wellbeing estimate that around 10% of young people in the UK consider themselves lonely, but an online questionnaire by the BBC found the far higher proportion of 42% among those choosing to answer. This figure may have been inflated by two factors: the self-reported nature of the voluntary ‘survey’, and the fact that the question about loneliness had been preceded by a long series of enquires as to whether the respondent in general felt a lack of companionship, isolated, left out, and so on, all of which might have primed them to give a positive response to the crucial question of feeling lonely.

Excerpt from: The Art of Statistics: Learning from Data by David Spiegelhalter

We seek out information that fits with what we want to hear

Here’s a more scientific example of how this tendency works. Two psychologists, Peter Ditto (of the University of California, Irvine) and David Lopez (founder and CEO of iAnalytics Statistical Consulting), told participants that they would take a test to determine whether they had a dangerous enzyme deficiency.. For the test, participants had to put a drop of saliva on a strip and then wait for the results. Some learned that the strip would turn green if they had the deficiency; others learned that green meant they did not have the deficiency. The strip wasn’t a real test — it was simply a piece of paper that ever changed its color. The result? Participants who hoped to see the test strip turn green as evidence that they didn’t have the deficiency waited much longer than those who hoped not to see it turn green. That is, people waited more patiently for data when they believed the data would reassure them than when the believed it would scare them.

Excerpt from: Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life by Francesca Gino

You talk to the audience in their language. Not yours

Horse Power was comparison everyone could understand.

Suddenly, Watt had put the steam engine into a language that made sense to the layman. Which is exactly what Steve Jobs did when he launched the iPod.

He didn’t compare it to to other MP3 players for speed and fidelity.

That would have been a market-share comparison.

Steve Jobs had a much bigger opportunity in mind, market-growth.

That’s why he compared the iPod to something ordinary people could understand.

He simply held it up and said “A thousand songs in your pocket.”

Because 200 years later the rules for creative communication haven’t changed. You talk to the audience in their language. Not yours.

Excerpt from: Creative Blindness (And How To Cure It): Real-life stories of remarkable creative vision by Dave Trott

On the power of unexpected rewards

As another example, an HBS study of the freelancer contracting site oDesk (now renamed Upwork) found that surprise incentives resulted in greater employee effort than higher pay. Harvard Business School researchers posted a data-entry job on oDesk that would take four hours. One of the postings offered $3 per hour fo the job; the other offered $4 per hour. People with past data-entry experience were hired at either the $3 or $4 rate. But some of those who were initially told they’d be paid $3 were later told that the hiring company had a bigger budget than what they expected: “Therefore, we will pay you $4 per hours instead of $3 per hour.” The group initially hired at $4 an hour worked no harder than this hired at $3. But those who received the surprise raise worked substantially harder than the other two groups, and among those with experience, their effort more than made up for the cost of the extra pay.

Excerpt from: Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life by Francesca Gino

A smart piece of psychology from Napoleon

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.

Excerpt from: Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life by Francesca Gino

Those who break norms are more likely to be seen as having a higher status

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.

Excerpt from: Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life by Francesca Gino

Before believing a study take a look at its methodology

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’.

Excerpt from: The Art of Statistics: Learning from Data by David Spiegelhalter

In our keenness to attribute success or failure to an intervention, we often forget that the change may well be a case of reversion to the mean

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.

Excerpt from: The Art of Statistics: Learning from Data by David Spiegelhalter

The power of a brand name

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

We tend to underestimate how much we’re influenced by others

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.

Excerpt from: The Little Book of Behavioral Investing: How not to be your own worst enemy by James Montier

On how admitting a weakness on a minor issue makes a brand’s other claims more believable

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.

Excerpt from: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini