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Rory Sutherland and ideas that don't make sense

A few members of the Six team attended a session held by Bristol Media to hear a fascinating talk from Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK and author of Alchemy: The surprising power of ideas that don’t make sense.

During his talk, Rory pointed to failings in economic theory that say economic success comes from just two things: having a superior product and/or offering a lower price. He argued that the current structure – built around objective truth and rationality – is clearly lacking, and that economists' addiction to this type of thinking negatively influences tax systems, government structures, and financial institutions. 

The reason the current structure is lacking? Well, the fact is that humans are not completely rational beings. The way that we interact with the world and the emotions we experience are based around context and meaning, not rationality, and therefore cannot be predicted with a rational model. 

This is where behavioural psychology meets marketing. 

A true orator, Rory Sutherland never fails to delight. His wit and charm made listening to him a sheer joy. 

Rory asked us to think about being hit in the face. The physical response is predictable: pain, swelling of the cheek, rush of blood to the surface, and the rise in temperature in the skin. But our emotional reaction is much harder to guess. The context and meaning can change it completely. For example, if a friend hits us by accident, our reaction is very different than if a stranger or someone we are afraid of hits us on purpose. 

So, if you want to influence people’s behaviour, you can’t simply follow what rationality dictates. You need to identify the ‘physical action’ – the stimulus – and change its context. You need to design the concept or product around the emotional reaction you are ultimately looking to achieve. And that means thinking about the irrational response.

After all, despite what many of us think, we are largely ruled by our ‘inner chimp’ – as author of The Chimp ParadoxProfessor Steve Peters termed it. For most people, our first response to an external stimulus is ultimately irrational and emotional, ruled by the animal inside us rather than the human, thinking part of ourselves.  

A great piece of research called the ‘Capuchin monkey experiment’ demonstrates the irrational reaction perfectly, and Mr Sutherland referenced it during his talk. Two monkeys are given cucumber to eat. They’re both happy with cucumber. Then the second monkey is offered grapes, but the first monkey is not. The first monkey immediately grows aggressive, demanding a share in what the second monkey has. 

We see this response – perhaps with less throwing of food – in people. Just like our cousins the monkeys, we’re wired to want to share and co-operate, but when we don’t get our fair share of the proceeds, our innate response of anger and feeling mistreated takes over. Evolution and society built the desire to share into us, and also built the emotional response to being denied a chance to do so. 

If you base everything around data and rational thought, you ignore the inner monkey. Rationally, the first monkey in the experiment should have continued to be happy with cucumber even when the second monkey was offered grapes, because neither he nor the cucumber had changed at all. 

If you ignore the instinct, you freeze out the emotional response. You can’t market effectively that way. You need to get to know your audience’s inner chimp. You need to make the design specific to them to elicit the emotional response you want from them, because that is ultimately what persuades them to buy or buy into a product or brand. That’s why we think brand purpose and culture are so important. Otherwise, everybody would buy the cheapest product, or they would research deeply into which is objectively the best, and buy that one. But people don’t do that. They buy based on influence or instinct, because something makes them laugh or because it makes them stop and think for a moment.

A lot of the time, people buy based on factors a rational approach could never anticipate. So it’s time to be less rational, embrace the inner monkey, and make use of the crazy ideas that don’t – at first glance – make sense.  

 As a social scientist by trade, I have always been fascinated by behavioural psychology and I was delighted to leave the talk with a signed copy of Rory’s book Alchemy: The surprising power of ideas that don’t make sense under my arm. I can’t wait to read it.


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