On the Downside of Spreadsheets and the Illusions they Create

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

How Clothes Shops Use the Contrast Principle to Boost Sales

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.”

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

On the Mismatch Between Employers and Employees

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.

Excerpt from: The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

The Importance of Judging a Presentation by its Effect, not its Technical Excellence

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!”.

Excerpt from: Perfect Pitch: The Art of Selling Ideas and Winning New Business by Jon Steel

People Underestimate how Much Social Proof Affects their Behaviour

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.”

Excerpt from: The Small BIG: Small Changes that Spark Big Influence by Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldstein, and Steve Martin


On the Power of Asking Obvious Questions

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.

Excerpt from: The A-Z of Visual Ideas: How to Solve any Creative Brief by John Ingledew

On Overconfidence Being a Bigger Problem than Incompetence

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

The Power of Making it Personal

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 unintended consequence of banning things is that they may become more desirable

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.

Excerpt from: Consumer Reaction to Restriction of Choice Alternatives by Michael Mazis and Robert Settle

On Why we Should Seek out Disconfirming Evidence when Formulating a Theory

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

How Little Shoppers Notice when in Store

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: The Danger of Ignoring What Can’t be Easily Measured

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

How Scarcity of Goods and Exclusivity of Information Significantly Increases Sales

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.

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

Why Analysing Successful Brands and Looking for a Recipe for Success may be Misleading

A quick hypothesis: say one million monkeys speculate on the stock market. They buy and sell stocks like crazy, and, of course, completely at random. What happens? After one week, about half of the monkeys will have made a profit and the other half a loss. The ones that made a profit can stay; the ones that made a loss you send home. In the second week, one half of the monkeys will still be riding high, while the other half will have made a loss and are sent home. And so on. After ten weeks, about 1,000 monkeys will be left — those who have always invested their money well. After twenty weeks, just one monkey will remain — this one always, without fail, chose the right stocks and is now a billionaire. Lets call him the success monkey.

How does the media react? They will pounce on this animal to understand its “success principles”. And they will find some: perhaps the monkey eats more bananas than the others. Perhaps he sits in another corner of the cage. Or, maybe he swings headlong through the branches, or he takes long, reflective pause while grooming. He must have some recipe for success, right? How else could he perform so brilliantly? Spot-on for twenty weeks — and that from a simple money? Impossible!

Also known as: Outcome Bias.

Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

On the Power of Loss Aversion in Healthcare

For this reason, if you want to convince someone about something, don’t focus on the advantages; instead highlight how it helps them dodge the disadvantages. Here is an example from a campaign promotion breast self-examination (BSE): two different leaflets were handed out to women. Pamphlet A urged: “Research shows that women who do BSE have an increased change of finding a tumour in the early, non treatable stage of the disease”. Pamphlet B said: “Research shows that women who do not do BSE have a decreased chance of finding a tumour in the early, more treatable stage of the disease.: The study revealed that pamphlet B (written in a “loss-frame”) generated significantly more awareness and BSE behaviour than pamphlet A (written in “gain-frame”).

Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

“Statistics Don’t Stir Us, People Do”

In another experiment, psychologist Paul Slovic asked people for donations. One group was shown a photo of Rokia from Malawi, an emaciated child with pleading eyes. Afterward, people donated an average of $2.83 to the charity (out of $5 they were given to fill out a short survey). The second group was shown statistics about the famine in Malawi, including the fact that more than three million malnourished children were affected, The average donation dropped by 50%. This is illogical: you would think that people’s generosity would grow if they know the extent of the disaster. But we do not function like that. Statistics don’t stir us; people do.

The media have long known that factual reports and bar charts do not entice readers. Hence the guideline: give the story a face.

Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

Why We Often, Mistakenly, Think the Past was a Golden Age

This argument — for example, “Why isn’t music as good as it used to be?” — reflects a historical selection bias, one colorfully described by the designer Frank Chimero. “Let me let you in on a little secret,” he writes. “If you are hearing about something old, it is almost certainly good. Why? Because nobody wants to talk about shitty old stuff, but lots of people still talk about shitty new stuff, because they are still trying to figure out if it is shitty or not. The past wasn’t better, we just forgot about all the shitty shit.”

Excerpt from, You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice by Tom Vanderbilt

On the Danger of Interpreting Data at Face Value

Another example, this time involving Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, didn’t have such a happy ending. Opta data showed that his star defender, Jaap Stam, was making fewer tackles each season. Ferguson promptly offloaded him in August 2001 to Lazio — keen to earn a high transfer fee before the decline became apparent to rival clubs.

However, Stam’s career blossomed in Italy and Ferguson realised his error — the lower number of tackles was a sign of Stam’s improvement, not decline. He was losing the ball less and intercepting more passes that he needed to make fewer tackles. Ferguson says selling Stam was the biggest mistake of his managerial career. From then on he refused to be seduced by simplistic data.

These criticisms don’t mean you should disregard tracking data. Expecting any methodology to be perfect is to burden it with unreasonable expectations. Instead, you need to be aware that it merely provides evidence to which you need to apply your discretion and judgement.

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

Changing the Subjective Experience Rather than the Objective Reality

In the early 2000s, the management at Houston airport was dismayed by the number of passenger complaints it was receiving.

The main issue was delays at the baggage carousel: by this point passengers were often at the end of their tether and even trivial delays tested their patience.

In response, the airport approved a hefty budget for more baggage handlers. At first, the cash looked well spent as waiting times dropped to eight minutes, about average for an airport. But complaints remained stubbornly high.

The authorities considered hiring more baggage handlers but that was prohibitively expensive. Instead, the managers took a psychological approach: they focused on improving the subjective experience rather than the objective reality.

One fact they had discovered earlier became key: people spent about a minute walking to the carousel and eight minutes waiting. The authorities re-routed passengers after passport control so they had to walk further. This meant they spent about eight minutes walking to the carousel and just a minute waiting.

Even though the time they picked up their bags was the same, complaints plummeted. In the words of Alex Stone, who reported on the Houston redesign for the New York Times, “the experience of waiting is defined only partly by the objective length of the wait”. What matters more is perception and an unoccupied wait feels far longer than an occupied one.

Excerpt from: ‘Customer experience is as much about perception as reality’ in Marketing Week

Anchoring in Practice at Apple

The same approach can be used to communicate initial product value. Steve Jobs used anchoring during the launch of the Apple iPad to such effect. At one of his fames launch presentations, he introduced the “rumoured cost” that was speculated to be $999. This information anchored the press to the notion this would be the high-priced product. However, when Jobs later in the event revealed the iPad to be priced at $499, this “anchoring and reveal” tactic created a notion of value for money.

Excerpt from: Northstar

The More Often We See a Statement, the More Likely we are to Believe it’s True

Another real-world manifestation of implicit memory is known as the illusion-of-truth effect: you are more likely to believe that a statement is true if you have heard it before – whether or not it is actually true. In one study, subjects rated the validity of plausible sentences every two weeks. Without letting on, the experimenters snuck in some repeat sentences (both true and false ones) across the testing sessions. And they found a clear result: if subjects had heard a sentence in precious weeks, they were more likely to now rate it as trie, even if they swore they has never heard it before.

Excerpt from; Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

The Beatles and the Myth that Talent Alone is Enough

To the USA, the Beatles were an overnight success, but in fact Lennon and McCartney had been playing together since 1957. In the clubs of Hamburg they performed/endured live non-stop shows for eight hours a day, seven days a week until two o’clock in the morning, and had to work incredibly hard to attract audiences from the many clubs in Hamburg competing for attention. Their abilities and confidence increased. By 1964 they had played roughly 1,200 times, totalling thousands of hours’ playing time, more than most rock bands play there entire careers. Those hours performing set the Beatles apart. They were addicted to practice, yet their rehearsing was not repetitive but adventurous. They didn’t play the classic rock songs of the time over and over until they sounded exactly like the originals, as other bands did; they experimented and improvised, constantly embellishing the standards until they made them their own. They understood there was nothing to be gained from mechanical reputation.

Excerpt from; The Art of Creative Thinking: 89 Ways to See Things Differently by Rod Judkins

Smart Nudge to Reduce Littering

A writer at out agency, Rob DeCleyn, found another great example of choice architecture in his local paper.

A village in Kent had a problem with litter.

Sweet wrappers, crisp packers, soft drink cans and bottles were strewn all over the streets.

But the local shopkeeper didn’t complain or nag the children.

He just wrote their name on the crisp and sweet packets when they bought them.

That’s all, just the child’s name.

And the litter problem cleared up almost immediately.

That’s choice architecture.

The children could still choose to throw their wrappers in the street.

They didn’t have to put them in the litter bin.

The only difference was that now everyone would know whose litter it was.

Excerpt from: One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking by Dave Trott

The Power of Expectations to Shape our Experience of Products

Pour a bottle of Gallo into an empty 50-year-old bottle of French Burgundy. Then carefully decant a glass in front of a friend and ask for an opinion.

You taste what you expect to taste.

Blind taste testings of champagne have often ranked inexpensive California brands above French ones. With the labels on, this is unlikely to happen.

You taste what you expect to taste.

Were it not so, there would be no role for advertising at all. Were the average consumer rational instead of emotional, there would be no advertising. At least not as we know it today.

Excerpt from: Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries

Reducing Anti-Social Behaviour by Making the Alternative More Fun

[…] in 2004, Preston council in Lancashire started to use boards with a peelable plastic film that could be cleaned every day and announced that the board helped reduce gum litter in the town by nearly 80 per cent. In the first year of their use Luton, Bedfordshire, the boards collected in excess of 75,000 pieces of used gum would otherwise have probably ended up on the pavement.

Excerpt from: One Step Ahead: Notes from the Problem Solving Unit by Stevyn Colgan

On the Illusory Superiority Bias

Second, more generally, we’re unduly negative when assessing others. That is, we suffer from an ‘illusory superiority bias’: we tend to think that we’re better than the average person when considering positive traits. Experiment after experiment has shown we rate our relationship happiness, leadership skills, IQ and popularity higher than those of our peers. Eight in ten of us deem our driving ability to be better than the average. To see how pervasive the illusory superiority bias is, we took a large, representative sample of the population in one of our surveys and asked half of the people what their chances were of being involved in a road accident, as either a road user of pedestrian, in the coming year, and asked the other half what the other’ chances were. There was a big difference. 40% in the first group picked the lowest probability option, while only 24% in the second group picked that option for others.

Excerpt from: The Perils of Perception by Bobby Duffy

How Constraints Can Inspire, Rather Than Hinder Creativity

Dr Seuss’s editors bet him he couldn’t write a book with a limit of only fifty different words. Dr Seuss won the bet and in the process produced one of the highest-selling children’s books of all time Green Eggs and Ham. Van Gogh used a maximum of six colours when waiting. Picasso focused on one colour during his Blue Period. They imposed these limitations on themselves. They needed a framework, but it was their framework, one that suited them.

Excerpt from: The Art of Creative Thinking by Rod Judkins

On the Danger of Uncritically Listening to Claimed Data

If Rudder’s study hunted at lying, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle (NATSAL) categorically confirms it. The survey, conducted among 15,000 respondents by UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is the gold standard of research. In 2010 it found that British heterosexual women admit to a mean of eight sexual partners, compared to twelve for men. The difference is logically impossible. If everyone is telling the truth the mean for each gender must be the same.

All of this foes to show that advertisers trying to understand their customers have a problem: if they listen uncritically to consumers, they’ll be misled.

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

Win Back Productive Time by Banning Talk of Bike Sheds

“Bike-shedding” comes from a story by C. Northcote Parkinson (he of Parkinson’s Law). He tells the tale of a committee that has to approve the plans for a nuclear power station. Since they know very little about nuclear power stations they talk about it briefly and then just approve the recommendation put in front of them. Next they have to approve the plans for a bike shed. They all know about bike sheds. They’ve all seen one and used one. So they talk about the bike shed for hours, arguing about construction methods and paint choice and everything. This is why bike-shedding is also known as The Law of Triviality: “members of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues”. I’m sure this observation is familiar to you. Most branding conversations seem, to me, to be one long bike-shedding session. It’s not so terrible, it’s human nature. The difference is that software people have identified and named the pattern. That naming is an organisational hack that allows them to break out of it and get on with something more useful. (See also: Fredkin’s Paradox)

Excerpt from: The Marketing Society print title Market Leader