In defense of things that don’t make sense

Ten counter-intuitive ideas to explain human behavior and inspire breakthroughs

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

It wouldn’t be too extreme to say that most fruits of human progress exist due to the efforts of individuals who in their own time might have been called foolish at best, and insane at worst. The births of cars, phones, airplanes and recently, the sharing economy, were accompanied neither by quiet encouragement of the experts nor the roaring support of the masses. Rather, they were met with downright ridicule or plain indifference simply because they were trying to break the bounds of what was thought logical. In other words, they were labeled crazy because they were trying to create magic.

But this piece is not about how some pioneers fought against the odds to bring their creations to life. No. This is about how we continue to downplay the power of seemingly crazy ideas, despite owing many of our successes to precisely such outliers. Alarmingly, even in areas where human motivations, desires and feelings are most at play, there is a tendency to impose the logic and certainty that is more suited to the domain of the hard sciences. In fact, we are willing to overvalue even the appearance of rationality at the expense of something that just works, but for reasons that aren’t that clear.

Ogilvy veteran Rory Sutherland, who runs a behavioral psychology unit within the storied firm’s UK office, has been exploring these questions for years in his work, writings and talks, and has now crystallized the most important ideas in his recent book Alchemy. As Sutherland writes, despite all of consumerism’s faults, there is probably no better way to study human psychology than to observe how people spend their money. The wealth of experience that he has gathered over decades in advertising holds important lessons for anyone looking to create innovation, bring about behavioral shifts or simply understand what makes humans tick. Here then, are ten powerful ideas from a legendary ad man:

  1. When it comes to human behavior, there is always a surface reason and beneath it, the real reason.

Feelings are far stronger drivers of action than cold logic and we often supply the surface reason after we have already decided how to act. Consider how hiring managers make their decisions —assuming similar credentials, how one candidate is chosen over another comes down to reasons that can’t really be explained. Maybe the manager prefers people similar to himself or is simply making a decision that is easier to defend. Which brings us to the next point…

2. We often use rationality as a mechanism to avoid blame for decisions that could go wrong.

In most settings, an imaginative decision leading to an unfavorable outcome has far worse consequences than a seemingly rational one that leads to the same result. Probably the most famous example of this is the adage ‘No one gets fired for hiring IBM’. If you are the person responsible for selecting an IT system for your company, you have to consider what’s good for the company (an efficient, cheaper solution) and what is good for you (avoiding blame for possible failure). In such a case, it is obvious what option most people would go with.

3. Context matters more than universal laws in defining how people behave.

Universal laws exist only in the domains of science and math, while most of us are governed by the specific contexts we’re in. An curse hurled at a driver who cut you off, becomes a term of endearment when used on a childhood friend. Some products become more desirable as their prices increase, completely in opposition to the dictates of economics. Context is everything.

4. We make choices not to maximize gain but to limit our downside, even if unconsciously.

The instinct to avoid a disastrous outcome is more deeply wired into us than the desire to maximize average gain. This is why brands are important — it’s not that a branded TV is necessarily better than a no-name & cheaper alternative, but we can be more certain that the former is better.

5. Sometimes, enhancing the perceived experience might be a better strategy compared to physically improving something.

We do not react to reality but to our perception of it. What this means is that we don’t always need to make things physically better, faster or cheaper in order to increase human satisfaction. We can achieve the same end-result by simply improving the experience of something. Citing the example of the digital time displays at subway stations, Sutherland shows how a cheap solution can lessen the anxiety of waiting as opposed to the much more expensive option of plying faster trains.

6. Reason is great for testing the validity of solutions but not for arriving at them.

Einstein said ‘imagination is more important than knowledge’. Why? Because you can’t just reason your way to breakthroughs. Still, we place more importance on method and how a solution was reached rather than whether it works. Relying only on logic will get you the same results as everyone whereas sometime silliness and illogical thought are what lead to breakthroughs.

7. Rational behavior doesn’t always occur due to rational reasons.

Therefore, don’t confine yourself to logical arguments only when trying to change people’s behavior. Attitude follows behavior, not the other way round. Tesla might have done much more than Greenpeace to make people environmentally conscious, even if their original reason for buying was something else (showing off?).

8. Innovation happens at the extremes, not in the middle.

Metrics like averages convey a false sense of representativeness and hide more than they reveal. Rational activities like market research, which purport to find the ‘regular’ customer end up excluding the weirdos at the extremes who actually drive innovation.

9. We do not value things themselves as much as what they mean.

A diamond ring by itself is worthless. But what it represents is a deep commitment and that’s why it costs several months salary to buy. Similarly, a male peacock’s elaborate plumage signifies its fitness to the females, simply because it has survived predators despite a neon-lit target on its back.

10. A message or action that seems irrational creates more meaning than one that is expected and narrowly logical.

Thanks to evolution we are conditioned to notice the unexpected and assign it greater meaning. Therefore, powerful messages must contain ‘an element of absurdity, illogicality, costliness, disproportion, inefficiency, scarcity, difficulty, or extravagance.’ An expensive TV commercial might not be important in itself, but the fact that the company has the wherewithal, and the confidence, to tell millions about its products speaks volumes.

I read like a man possessed | I write to understand the world | Twitter: @DhawalHelix