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The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life

By Rory Sutherland
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Alchemy by Rory Sutherland

Alchemy (2018) makes a case for irrational thinking in a world enraptured by logic. Drawing on his first-hand knowledge of the advertising industry and insights from behavioral psychology, Rory Sutherland argues that the world is far too complex to be viewed through a single lens. To solve everyday problems, we must move past superficial analysis and open ourselves up to even the most seemingly nonsensical ideas – which often turn out to be very powerful. Only then can we be true alchemists. 

Key idea 1 of 8

Human behavior can’t always be explained by logic.

In many aspects of life, logical thinking is essential. Raw reason and rationale have produced revolutionary scientific discoveries and built the infrastructure that our countries depend upon. But there are some instances where logic simply doesn’t apply, especially when it comes to human behavior. 

People are complex, irrational beings who make peculiar decisions and often don’t act in the way we expect them to. Look at our attitudes toward brands, for example – we prize some more highly than others even when the products have the same quality or function. 

Consider toothpaste as a case in point. Consumers prefer to brush their teeth with stripy toothpaste, even though there’s no clear advantage to using this type over other, non-stripy toothpastes. Why? Clever design. 

The various lines of color in stripy toothpaste signal to us that we’re getting multiple benefits – teeth-whitening, breath-freshening, and bacteria-fighting – all in one formula. Visually, it gives the illusion that stripy toothpaste is more effective. Our preference for it is, ultimately, irrational – a prime example of why our decisions and behavior are hard to predict. 

That’s why assumptions about people which are ostensibly based on logic – like those in economic models or case studies performed by businesses – so often fail. 

For example, many businesses in the United States think that productivity is related to the number of hours employees work. In their minds, this means that employees who have more vacation time must be less effective. As the author explains, businesses often consider humans to be like machines, and like machines, they can get rusty and less efficient when left idle for too long. 

But what if employees actually need more leisure time to do their jobs optimally? After all, happier, more rested employees will presumably want to continue working even later in life. And as far as productivity goes, just look at businesses in Europe: in Germany, employees get six weeks of paid leave a year and the economy is thriving; French workers get a generous holiday allowance and remain highly productive.

For businesses, asking employees to work longer seems like common sense. But, if they were to shelve their assumptions and think outside the box they could make room for startling insights.

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