Alchemy: The Surprising Power Of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense

Posted by Jonathan Phillips | 04-Sep-2019 12:21:31

Jonathan Phillips reviews the Book of the Month for September: "Alchemy" by Rory Sutherland.

We humans are in thrall to logic and it is stifling our creativity, innovation and magic. Whether it’s the humble spreadsheet, the well-crafted strategy document or advanced economic theory, rationality reigns supreme.

But then how can biscuits taste worse without changing the recipe? Why do countdown boards on platforms mitigate the pain of train delays? Or, more pressingly, how are politicians being elected all around the world by standing on a platform of mistruths and equivocations?

Rory Sutherland’s answer lies in ‘psycho-logic’ which he argues is at the root of most of human behaviour. Once a person understands the power of psycho-logic, they are freed up to find irrational (and often better) solutions to problems. 

The trick to being an alchemist lies not in understanding universal laws, but in spotting the many instances where those laws do not apply.

This book is tremendous fun. It pops, fizzes and entertains in a style much like anyone who has seen Rory’s multi-million viewed TED Talks will be familiar with (do check these out if you’re not). It’s a page-turner that you’ll read with a wry smile and the occasional guffaw as the author walks you through his world view in an extremely convincing fashion.

There are 11 rules for Alchemy, including "a flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget" and "a good guess which stands up to observation is still science. So is a lucky accident", but my favourite is number three:

"It doesn't pay to be logical if everyone else is being logical."

In the sense that if everyone else is thinking rationally, your irrationality is your competitive edge. It reminds me of that wonderful line about Kansas City Shuffle that Bruce Willis talks about in the movie Lucky Number Slevin: "when everyone turns left, you turn right."

The book is littered with great examples of the profitable application of psycho-logic at play. For example, in the case of Red Bull. He argues that if a company from the offset had said they were going to compete with Coke by creating a more expensive drink, in a smaller can with quite an awful taste, that there is no way it would have happened on logic alone. Yet it is now one of the biggest drink brands on the planet with six billion cans sold annually.

It all boils down, he argues, to the fact that humans don’t really understand why we do things. But what we are very good at is falsely post-rationalising decisions after the fact, so that we can coddle ourselves in logical comfort blanket at all times. 

But how then do we break free and achieve this state of creative thinking nirvana? By asking childish questions is a good place to start. For example, trains are an obsession of Rory’s. By simply asking ‘why do people hate standing so much on trains?’ either someone will shoot you down with withering contempt at your foolishness, or you’ll find some really interesting answers. Rory argues that creative agencies are some of the last refuges where asking these questions is not just allowed, but encouraged. Equally, he describes the dangers of trying illogical solutions in most corporations where, if you’re wrong, the consequences to your reputation tend to be very damaging.

So how can biscuits taste worse without changing the recipe? As one Belgian company did, you slap ‘low-fat’ on the packaging and watch your sales nosedive. Whilst for their biscuits it was logically true, there is nothing that will kill the pleasure of food more.


Topics: Guest Blogs

Written by Jonathan Phillips

Jonathan Phillips is Head of Penguin Connect at Penguin Random House UK: his team connect businesses and their people with world class authors and the ideas that make difference to inspire personal and professional growth.

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