We should never forget that our need for logic and certainty brings costs as well as benefits. The need to appear scientific in our methodology may prevent us from considering other, less logical and more magical solutions, which can be cheap, fast-acting and effective.
Entrepreneurs are disproportionately valuable precisely because they are not confined to doing only those things that make sense to a committee.
When you demand logic, you pay a hidden price: you destroy magic.
In real life, most things aren’t logical – they are psycho-logical.
There are often two reasons behind people’s behaviour: the ostensibly logical reason, and the real reason.
There is an ostensible, rational, self-declared reason why we do things, and there is also a cryptic or hidden purpose.
Humans are a deeply social species (which may mean that research into human behaviour or choices in artificial experiments where there is no social context isn’t really all that useful).
More data leads to better decisions, except when it doesn’t.
Big data all comes from the past
A single rogue variable, or a ‘black swan’ event, can throw the most perfectly calibrated model into chaos
In theory, you can’t be too logical, but in practice, you can.
To solve logic-proof problems requires intelligent, logical people to admit the possibility that they might be wrong about something, but these people’s minds are often most resistant to change – perhaps because their status is deeply entwined with their capacity for reason.
We could never have evolved to be rational—it makes you weak
Irrational people are much more powerful than rational people, because their threats are so much more convincing
A rational leader suggests changing course to avoid a storm. An irrational one can change the weather.
Being slightly bonkers can be a good negotiating strategy: being rational means you are predictable, and being predictable makes you weak.
If you are wholly predictable, people learn to hack you.
Reality isn’t nearly as logical as we think
In a designed system, one thing does serve one narrow purpose. In an evolved, complex system, or in human behaviour, things can have multiple uses depending on the context within which they are viewed.
Avoid the trap of assuming the same skills that can explain the past can be used to predict the future.
Two forms of scientific enquiry—the discovery of what works and the explanation and understanding of why it works
There is much more value to be found in understanding how people behave in reality than how they should behave in theory.
A gift for one’s child – might be more emotionally rewarding than a cash reward, which is a gain for oneself.
Evolution is like a brilliant uneducated craftsman: what it lacks in intellect it makes up for in experience.
Be careful before calling something nonsense.
Something can be valuable without necessarily being valuable all the time.
Whether something makes sense in theory matters less than whether it works in practice.
Just because we don’t know why it works, we should not be blind to the fact that it does.
the single greatest strength of free markets is their ability to generate innovative things whose popularity makes no sense.
Once you accept that there may be a value or purpose to things that are hard to justify, you will naturally come to another conclusion: that it is perfectly possible to be both rational and wrong.
Logical ideas often fail because logic demands universally applicable laws but humans, unlike atoms, are not consistent enough in their behaviour for such laws to hold very broadly.
‘Context’ is often the most important thing in determining how people think, behave and act
There are two equally potent, but completely contradictory, ways to sell a product: ‘Not many people own one of these, so it must be good’ and ‘Lots of people already own one of these, so it must be good.’
The principles of selling and behaviour change are imbued with contradictions.
In psychology the opposite of a good idea can be a very good idea indeed: both opposites often work.
Our very perception of the world is affected by context,
It is much easier to be fired for being illogical than it is for being unimaginative.
The problem that bedevils organisations once they reach a certain size* is that narrow, conventional logic is the natural mode of thinking for the risk-averse bureaucrat or executive.
you can never be fired for being logical.
If your reasoning is sound and unimaginative, even if you fail, it is unlikely you will attract much blame.
logic always gets you to exactly the same place as your competitors.
‘Test counterintuitive things, because no one else ever does.’
The world runs on two operating systems.
The much smaller of them runs on conventional logic.
The logical and the psycho-logical approaches run on different operating systems and require different software, and we need to understand both.
Signalling, Subconscious hacking, Satisficing and Psychophysics.
There is the unambiguously ‘right’ answer, where certainty is achieved by limiting the number of data points considered. The downside of this is that, in the wrong context, it can be hopelessly wrong.
‘The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing,’ as Pascal put it.*
‘The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.’
People are much more comfortable attributing the success of a business to superior technology or better supply-chain management than to an unconscious, unspoken human desire.
Evolution does not care for accuracy and objectivity: it cares about fitness.
Ancillary details have a far greater effect on our emotional response, and hence our behaviour, than measured outcomes.
For a business to be truly customer-focused, it needs to ignore what people say. Instead it needs to concentrate on what people feel.
Nature cares a great deal about feelings, and feelings largely drive what we do, but they do not come with explanations attached – because we are often better off not knowing them.
The reason we do not ask basic questions is because, once our brain provides a logical answer, we stop looking for better ones; with a little alchemy, better answers can be found.
It is only when we abandon a narrow logic and embrace an appreciation of psycho-logical value, that we can truly improve things.
Once we are honest about the existence of unconscious motivations, we can broaden our possible solutions.
People simply do not have introspective access to their motivations
Most issues involving human behaviour or decision-making have been solved by looking through what I call ‘regulation-issue binoculars’.
Both the lenses are pretty badly cracked, and they distort our view of every issue.
first lens is market research or, to give it a simpler name, asking people.
second lens is standard economic theory, which doesn’t ask people what they do and doesn’t even observe what they do. Instead it assumes a narrow and overly ‘rationalistic’ view of human motivation, by focusing on a theoretical, one-dimensional conception of what it believes humans are trying to do
Stubborn problems are probably stubborn because they are logic-proof.
The old binoculars provide a view that is so distorted, a field of view so narrow, that they blind us to far simpler creative solutions.
‘Asking the real why’.
Same techniques which can solve minor problems can also be deployed to solve much larger ones.
If you would like an easy life, never come up with a solution to a problem that is drawn from a field of expertise other than that from which it is assumed the solution will arise.
In a sensible world, the only thing that would matter would be solving a problem by whatever means work best, but problem-solving is a strangely status-conscious job: there are high-status approaches and low-status approaches.
If a problem is solved using a discipline other than that practised by those who believe themselves the rightful guardians of the solution, you’ll face an uphill struggle no matter how much evidence you can amass.
All too often, what matters is not whether an idea is true or effective, but whether it fits with the preconceptions of a dominant cabal.
Upton Sinclair once remarked, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’
A moonshot is an incredibly ambitious innovation; instead of pursuing change by increments, it aims to change something by a factor of ten.
‘Psychological moonshots’ are comparatively easy. Making a train journey 20 per cent faster might cost hundreds of millions, but making it 20 per cent more enjoyable may cost almost nothing.
It’s easy to achieve massive improvements in perception at a fraction of the cost of equivalent improvements in reality.
You will never uncover unconscious motivations unless you create an atmosphere in which people can ask apparently fatuous questions without fear of shame.
But just because there is a rational answer to something, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a more interesting, irrational answer to be found in the unconscious.
It is vital that you factor in unconscious motivations alongside post-rationalisations.
Attempting to change behaviour through rational argument may be ineffective, and even counterproductive.
If you want to change people’s behaviour, listening to their rational explanation for their behaviour may be misleading, because it isn’t ‘the real why’.
Understanding the unconscious obstacle to a new behaviour and then removing it, or else creating a new context for a decision, will generally work much more effectively.
If an unconscious motivation happens to coincide with a rational explanation, we assume that it is the rational motive which drives the action.
There is no such thing as a rational or irrational belief – there is only rational or irrational behaviour.’
Behaviours which have a rationally beneficial outcome do not have to be driven by a rational motivation.
As far as evolution is concerned, if a behaviour is beneficial, we can attach any reason to it that we like.
You don’t need reasons to be rational.
In trying to encourage rational behaviour, don’t confine yourself to rational arguments.
If you asked people why they cleaned their teeth, they would talk about dental health and avoiding trips to the dentist, probably without mentioning fresh breath and social confidence.
If you confine yourself to using rational arguments to encourage rational behaviour, you will be using only a tiny proportion of the tools in your armoury. Logic demands a direct connection between reason and action, but psycho-logic doesn’t.
What people do with their own money (their ‘revealed preferences’) is generally a better guide to what they really want than their own reported wants and needs.
How you ask the question affects the answer
We are highly social creatures and just as we find it very difficult to answer the question ‘still or sparkling?’ with ‘tap’, it is also difficult to answer the question about ‘three or four’ smoke detectors with with ‘one’.
‘the way a question is phrased is itself information’.
An inability to change perspective is equivalent to a loss of intelligence.
The psychological complexity of human behaviour is reduced to a narrow set of assumptions about what people want, which means they design a world for logical rather than psycho-logical people. And so we have faster trains with uncomfortable seats departing from stark, modernist stations, whereas our unconscious may well prefer the opposite: slower trains with comfortable seats departing from ornate stations.
As we have gained access to more information, data, processing power and better communications, we may also be losing the ability to see things in more than one way; the more data we have, the less room there is for things that can’t easily be used in computation.
Reasoning is a priceless tool for evaluating solutions, and essential if you wish to defend them, but it does not always do a very good job of finding those solutions in the first place.
To put it crudely, when you multiply bullshit with bullshit, you don’t get a bit more bullshit – you get bullshit squared.
In real life, your ability to bet is contingent on the success of bets you have made in the past.
Many supposed biases may not be biases at all
a decision which seems irrational when viewed through an ensemble perspective is rational when viewed through the correct time-series perspective, which is how real life is actually lived;
what happens on average when a thousand people do something once is not a clue to what will happen when one person does something a thousand times.
Nearly all pricing models assume that ten people paying for something once is the same as one person paying for something ten times, but this is obviously not the case.
Ten people who each order ten things every year from Amazon will probably not begrudge paying a few dollars for delivery each time, while one person who buys 100 things from Amazon every year is going to look at his annual expenditure on shipping and decide, ‘Hmm, time to rediscover Walmart.’
The time-saving model used to justify the UK’s current investment in the High Speed 2 rail network assumes that 40 people saving an hour ten times a year is the same as one commuter saving an hour 400 times a year.
Every time you average, add or multiply something, you are losing information.
One rogue piece of data – a single outlier – can lead to insane conclusions when not understood in the proper context.
Online shopping is a very good way for ten people to buy one thing, but it is not a good way for one person to buy ten things.
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.
We are much more likely to take risks when hiring ten people than when hiring one.
Individuals who are hiring individuals may be needlessly risk averse; they are hiring potatoes.
A person engaged in recruitment may think they are trying to hire the best person for the job, but their subconscious motivation is subtly different. Yes, they want to hire a candidate who is likely to be good, but they are also frightened of hiring someone who might turn out to be bad – a low variance will be as appealing to them as a high average performance.
There is an inevitable trade-off between fairness and variety. By applying identical criteria to everyone in the name of fairness, you end up recruiting identical people.
Anyone can easily build a career on a single eccentric talent, if it is cunningly deployed.
‘Find one or two things your boss is rubbish at and be quite good at them.’
Complementary talent is far more valuable than conformist talent.
The need to look rational can make you act dumb
Remember also that a single rogue outlier can lead to an extraordinary distortion of reality – just as Bill Gates can walk into a football stadium and raise the average level of wealth of everyone in it by $1m.
Don’t design for average.
Innovation happens at the extremes.
Weird consumers drive more innovation than normal ones.
One great problem with metrics is that they destroy diversity because they force everybody to pursue the same narrow goal, often in the same narrow way, or to make choices using the exact same criteria.
An unconventional rule for spotting talent that nobody else uses may be far better than a ‘better’ rule which is in common use, because it will allow you to find talent that is undervalued by everyone else.
Real excellence can come in odd packaging.
You don’t want the smooth, silver-haired patrician who looks straight out of central casting – you want his slightly overweight, less patrician but equally senior colleague in the ill-fitting suit. The former has become successful partly as a result of his appearance, the latter despite it.
Apparent gender or racial bias may not only arise for the assumed reasons; other unconscious mechanisms may also be involved, depending on the context.
The context and order of choosing affects things in ways we would not consciously expect
Decoy effect* in the decision process
Context is everything: strangely, the attractiveness of what we choose is affected by comparisons with what we reject.
I knew that if I bought a house using wildly divergent criteria from everyone else, I should find a place that was relatively undervalued.
It doesn’t always pay to be logical if everyone else is also being logical.
Logic may be a good way to defend and explain a decision, but it is not always a good way to reach one.
When choosing things in scarce supply* it pays to be eccentric.
We have no real unitary measure of what is important and what is not
We often misuse our powers of reason, setting too low a bar in how we evaluate solutions, but too high a bar in our conditions for how we reach solutions.
If you look at the history of great inventions and discoveries, sequential deductive reasoning has contributed to relatively few of them.
First, we guess it . . . Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this law we guess is right, to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to . . . experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works . . . In that simple statement is the key to science.
A good guess which stands up to observation is still science. So is a lucky accident.
Business people and politicians do not quite understand this and tend to evaluate decisions by the rigour of the process that produces them, rather than by the rigour with which you evaluate their consequences.
Closed-mindedly attaching more importance to the purity of the methodology than to the possible value of the solution, which leads us to ignore possible solutions not because they have been proven to be wrong, but because they have not been reached through an approved process of reasoning.
Most valuable discoveries don’t make sense at first; if they did, somebody would have discovered them already.
We approve reasonable things too quickly, while counterintuitive ideas are frequently treated with suspicion.
We should test counterintuitive things – because no one else will.
‘Drama is just real life with the boring bits edited out’.
We constantly rewrite the past to form a narrative which cuts out the non-critical points – and which replaces luck and random experimentation with conscious intent.
‘There are two key steps that a mathematician uses. He uses intuition to guess the right problem and the right solution and then logic to prove it.’
Our tendency to attribute our successes to a planned and scientific approach and to play down the part of accidental and unplanned factors in our success is misleading and possibly even limits our scope for innovative work.
Reason arose in the human brain not to inform our actions and beliefs, but to explain and defend them to others.
In other words, it is an adaptation necessitated by our being a highly social species.
We tend to frown on those who admit their debt to intuition as opposed to carefully planned experiment.
In the physical sciences, cause and effect map neatly; in behavioural sciences it is far more complex. Cause, context, meaning, emotion, effect.
One explanation for why apparently logical arguments may be ineffectual at changing people’s minds, and why they should be treated with suspicion, is that it is simply too easy to generate them in the real world.
The more data you have, the easier it is to find support for some spurious, self-serving narrative.
The profusion of data in future will not settle arguments: it will make them worse.
When every function of a business is looked at from the same narrow economic standpoint, the same game is applied endlessly. Define something narrowly, automate or streamline it – or remove it entirely – then regard the savings as profit.
The human brain has been calibrated by evolution not to pursue economic optimisation and risk systemic disaster.
It is not uncommon for premium-priced products to have a high market share,
Essential facet of free market capitalism that it does not care about reasons – in fact it will often reward lucky idiots.
That’s what makes markets so brilliant: they are happy to reward and fund the necessary, regardless of the quality of reasoning.
System that did not ensure the survival of lucky accidents would lose most of its value. Evolutionary progress, after all, is the product of lucky accidents.
The theory is that free markets are principally about maximising efficiency, but in truth, free markets are not efficient at all.
People’s motivations are not always well-aligned with the interests of a business: the best decision to make is to pursue rational self-justification, not profit. No one was ever fired for pretending economics was true.
In psychology these laws do not apply: one plus one can equal three.
We don’t value things; we value their meaning. What they are is determined by the laws of physics, but what they mean is determined by the laws of psychology.
Look at the paper money in your wallet or purse; the value is exclusively psychological. Value resides not in the thing itself, but in the minds of those who value it.
You can therefore create (or destroy) value it in two ways – either by changing the thing or by changing minds about what it is.
According to research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, descriptive menu labels raised sales by 27 per cent in restaurants, compared to food items without descriptors.
Never forget this: the nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience.
‘A label directs a person’s attention towards a feature in a dish, and hence helps bring out certain flavours and textures.’
Advertising often also works in this way. A great deal of the effectiveness of advertising derives from its power to direct attention to favourable aspects of an experience, in order to change the experience for the better.
Adding photographs of dishes to a menu seems to heavily limit what you can charge for them.
Others believe that attractive photographs may raise expectations too high, leading to inevitable disappointment when the real food arrives.
Creating a name for a behaviour implicitly creates a norm for it.
While it is accepted that physical objects are designed around the evolved human frame, it is not universally accepted that the world is shaped to work with the evolved human brain.
A world designed by economists would be one where chairs were designed merely to stably support the weight of the sitter, with no regard given to physical comfort or padding. This is what you might call ‘aspergic design’ – design which gives consideration to the working of every part of the system, except the biological part.
If there is a mystery at the heart of this book, it is why psychology has been so peculiarly uninfluential in business and in policy-making when, whether done well or badly, it makes a spectacular difference.
Economic logic suggests that more is better. Psycho-logic often believes that less is more.
By removing the recording function from Walkmans, Sony produced a product that had a lower range of functionality, but a far greater potential to a change behaviour.
By reducing the possible applications of the device to a single use, it clarified what the device was for.
It is always possible to add functionality to something, but while this makes the new thing more versatile, it also reduces the clarity of its affordance, making it less pleasurable to use and quite possibly more difficult to justify buying.
The Walkman also exploits a clear psychological heuristic, or rule of thumb – ‘the jack-of-all-trades-heuristic’, whereby we naturally assume that something that only does one thing is better than something that claims to do many things.
It is surprisingly common for significant innovations to emerge from the removal of features rather than the addition.
If you want to offer ease of use – and ease of purchase – it is often a good idea not to offer people a Swiss Army knife, something that claims to do lots of things.
The strongest marketing approach in a business-to-business context comes not from explaining that your product is good, but from sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt (now commonly abbreviated as FUD) around the available alternatives.
Signalling, the need to send reliable indications of commitment and intent, which can inspire confidence and trust
Cooperation is impossible unless a mechanism is in place to prevent deception and cheating; some degree of efficiency often needs to be sacrificed in order to convey trustworthiness or to build a reputation.
Reciprocation, reputation and pre-commitment signalling are the three big mechanisms that underpin trust.
Many things which do not make sense in a logical context suddenly make perfect sense if you consider what they mean rather than what they are.
The reason for that is that the Ultimatum Game is stupid, and so is the Prisoner’s Dilemma: these games exist in a context-free, theoretical universe with no real-life parallels. They both posit the idea of the one-shot exchange, a transaction involving two strangers with no knowledge of the other’s identity. In the real world, such transactions never take largely place
We choose to buy things in shops, not from random strangers in the street.
When we engage in transactions, we are generally aware of the other party’s identity and can see clues to their commitment.
Reputation is a form of skin in the game: it takes far longer to acquire a reputation than to lose one.
Upfront investment is proof of long-term commitment, which is a guarantor of honest behaviour.
The prospect of repeat custom is something that keeps businesses honest,
What keeps the relationship honest and mutually beneficial is nothing other than the prospect of repetition.
Unlike short-term expediency, long-term self-interest, as the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has shown, often leads to behaviours that are indistinguishable from mutually beneficial cooperation.
Prospects for cooperation are far greater when there is a high expectation of repetition than in single-shot transactions.
Social capital as ‘the shadow of the future at a societal scale’. We acquire it as a means of signalling our commitment to long-term, mutually beneficial behaviours,
Solving a problem for a customer at your own expense is a good way of signalling your commitment to a future relationship.
Theory of ‘continuation probability’ would also predict that, when a business focuses narrowly on short-term profit maximisation, it will appear less trustworthy to its customers, something that seems all too plausible.
‘Costly signalling theory’, the fact that the meaning and significance attached to a something is in direct proportion to the expense with which it is communicated.
We notice and attach significance and meaning to those things that deviate from narrow, economic common sense, precisely because they deviate from it. The result of this is that the pursuit of narrow economic rationalism will produce a world rich in goods, but deficient in meaning.
Effective communication will always require some degree of irrationality in its creation because if it’s perfectly rational it becomes, like water, entirely lacking in flavour.
It is difficult to produce good advertising, but good advertising is only good because it is difficult to produce.
The potency and meaningfulness of communication is in direct proportion to the costliness of its creation – the amount of pain, effort, talent (or failing that, expensive celebrities or pricey TV airtime) consumed in its creation and distribution. This may be inefficient – but it’s what makes it work.
Meaning is conveyed by the things we do that are not in our own short-term self-interest—by the costs that we incur and the risks we take.
All powerful messages must contain an element of absurdity, illogicality, costliness, disproportion, inefficiency, scarcity, difficulty or extravagance – because rational behaviour and talk, for all their strengths, convey no meaning.
It is only by deviating from a narrow, short-term self-interest that we can generate anything more than cheap talk.
It is therefore impossible to generate trust, affection, respect, reputation, status, loyalty, generosity or sexual opportunity by simply pursuing the dictates of rational economic theory.
We draw unconscious inferences from environmental cues everywhere we go, without having the slightest awareness that we are doing so – it is thinking without thinking that we are thinking.
We have developed the ability to arrive at pretty good, non-catastrophic decisions based on limited, non-numerical information,
In nature, it is often necessary for something to present a persuasive message, and in a way that can’t be faked.
There is no point in advertising heavily up front if you only make one sale.
It is only by having a recognisable identity that a flower is able to improve the value exchange* and increase the chance of repeat visits.
Since at the moment you make a purchase decision, the advertiser knows more about his product than you do, a costly demonstration of faith by the seller may well be the most reliable indicator of whether something is at least worthy of consideration (remember the Knowledge with London taxi drivers).
Doing something ostensibly irrational conveys more meaning than something that makes sense. It has meaning precisely because it is difficult to do.
A quality that starts off being prized as a useful proxy for fitness becomes exaggerated to an absurd degree, a process sometimes known as Fisherian runaway selection.
Different forms of status seeking have effects on the wider populations that range from the highly beneficial to the downright disastrous.
In the early stages of any significant innovation, there may be an awkward stage where the new product is no better than what it is seeking to replace.
The appeal of these products was based on their status as much as their utility.
Many innovations would not have got off the ground without the human instinct for status-signalling,* so might it be the same in nature?
Costly signalling can lead to economic inefficiency, but at the same time this inefficiency establishes valuable social qualities such as trustworthiness and commitment – politeness and good manners are costly signalling in a face-to-face form.
Why is there a reluctance to accept that life is not just a narrow pursuit of greater efficiency and that there is room for opulence and display as well?
As neuroscientists have observed, we don’t so much choose brands as use them to aid choice. And when a choice baffles us, we take the safe default option – which is to do nothing at all.
We felt uneasy buying something that cost a few hundred pounds without the reassurance of a recognisable name. British ad-man Robin Wight calls this instinct ‘the Reputation Reflex’
‘Information asymmetry’, whereby the seller knows more about what he is selling than the buyer knows about what he is buying.
Without the feedback loop made possible by distinctive and distinguishable petals or brands, nothing can improve. The loop exists because insects or people learn to differentiate between the more and less rewarding plants or brands, and then direct their behaviour accordingly.
Without this mechanism there is no incentive to improve your product, because the benefits will accrue to everybody equally; in addition, there is an ever-present incentive to let product quality slip, because you will reap the immediate gains, while the reputational consequences will hurt everyone else equally.
Branding isn’t just something to add to great products – it’s essential to their existence.
Without this assurance of quality, there simply isn’t enough trust for markets to function at all, which means that perfectly good ideas can fail.
The fact that something does not work through a known and logical mechanism should not make us unwilling to adopt it.
Research into the placebo effect shows that branded analgesics are more effective.
Our unconscious, specifically our ‘adaptive unconscious’ as psychologist Timothy Wilson calls it in Strangers to Ourselves (2002), does not notice or process information in the same way we do consciously, and does not speak the same language that our consciousness does, but it holds the reins when it comes to much of our behaviour.
The same applies to human free will: we can control our actions and emotions to some extent, but we cannot do so directly, so we have to learn to do it indirectly
This indirect process of influence applies to all complex systems,
The problems we face arise because policy problems are given to the intellectual equivalent of manual car drivers, who believe that the only acceptable way to change gear is to use a gearstick, rather than indirectly with an accelerator pedal.
You can use conscious mechanisms to produce unconscious effects.
The actions required to create such conditions may involve a certain degree of what appears to be bullshit – but it is only bullshit when you don’t know what its reason is.
‘The conscious mind thinks it’s the Oval Office, when in reality it’s the press office.’
We believe we are issuing executive orders, while most of the time we are actually engaged in hastily constructing plausible post-rationalisations to explain decisions taken somewhere else, for reasons we do not understand
We pretend that conscious human agency is the only force that drives our behaviour, and therefore disparage other less obvious behaviours that we have adopted to hack our unconscious processes as if they were irrational, wasteful or absurd
Humphrey suggests that our body’s immune system is calibrated to suit a much tougher environment than the one in which we find ourselves.
The human immune system has over time been calibrated to promote survival in conditions far harsher than those of today.
We all spend a considerable amount of time and money essentially signalling to ourselves: many of the things we do are not be intended to advertise anything about ourselves to others – we are, in effect, advertising to ourselves
Humans regularly deployed oblique methods to generate bodily states and emotions which, like our immune response, we cannot consciously will into action – but which we can coax into existence
There is an important lesson in evaluating human behaviour: never denigrate a behaviour as irrational until you have considered what purpose it really serves.
Most products have both an ostensible, ‘official’ function and an ulterior function.
The only way you can discover what people really want (their ‘revealed preferences’, in economic parlance) is through seeing what they actually pay for under a variety of different conditions, in a variety of contexts. This requires trial and error – which requires competitive markets and marketing.
Many pedestrian crossings have buttons that also have no effect at all – the traffic lights are set to a timed sequence.* However, here the presence of the button is a rather more benign lie: how many fewer people would wait for the green man if there were no button to press? And how many more people would wait for the green man if there were a digital display of the seconds to wait before its appearance? In countries including Korea and China, accidents at intersections have been reduced by simply displaying the number of seconds remaining before the lights turn green.
The mammalian brain has a deep-set preference for control and certainty.
More is spent on female beauty than on education.
a large part of the two trillion dollars spent on female self-beautification is not spent in order to appeal to the opposite sex;
a significant part of what you’re doing when you spend two hours on self-grooming is self-administering a confidence placebo to produce emotions that you can’t generate through a conscious act of will.
One of Nicholas Humphrey’s rules about what makes an effective placebo is that there must be some effort, scarcity or expense involved.
Although everyone had drunk exactly the same drink, the ‘vodka Red Bull group’ reported feeling much drunker, took more risks than the others and were more confident when it came to approaching women. Furthermore, the effect appeared to be stronger in men who believed that mixing energy drinks and alcohol makes you take risks and reduces inhibitions, suggesting that the altered behaviour is not caused by the drink’s composition but by what you believe it does to you.
Much luxury goods expenditure can only be explained in this way – either people are seeking to impress each other, or they are seeking to impress themselves.*
The branding of Red Bull, through slogans like ‘Red Bull gives you wings’ or the extreme sport competitions they sponsor, may not merely determine whether people buy the product but also how they respond to its name in a cocktail and how they interpret its effects.
Even if the contents aren’t particularly poisonous or potent, our inner monkey can deduce that they are – remember that the prefrontal cortex isn’t involved in this decision at all, and that it is the monkey alone who decides whether a placebo works.
So signalling to ourselves or others – whether to obtain a health benefit (boosting the immune system), applying make-up (boosting confidence) or buying luxury goods (boosting status) – always seems to come accompanied by behaviours that don’t make sense when viewed from a logical perspective. However, rather than being a coincidence or a regrettable by-product, it may be a necessity.
Things which involve a degree of sacrifice seem to have a heightened effect on the unconscious, precisely because they do not make logical sense.
The qualities we notice, and the things which often affect us most, are the things that make no sense – at some level, perhaps it is necessary to deviate from standard rationality and do something apparently illogical to attract the attention of the subconscious and create meaning.
Placebos need to be slightly absurd to work.
If you look at behaviours to hack the unconscious, they all seem to have an element that is wasteful, unpleasant or downright silly
Do these various things work despite the fact that they are illogical, or do they work precisely because they are?
And if our unconscious instincts are programmed to respond to and to generate behaviours precisely because they deviate from economic optimality, what might be the evolutionary reason for this?
Meaning is disproportionately conveyed by things that are unexpected or illogical, while narrowly logical things convey no information at all.