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How to rationalise irrationality

This month’s B+G Book Club review is by Shane Casey, Head of Digital + Creative Director at Boys+Girls.

Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense, by Rory Sutherland

Adland is full of contrarians. With varying degrees of success, they pick an establishment “thing” and build a career out of being the “anti-thing” guy. How easy a target that “thing” is usually a good judge of the contrarian, so you can only respect Rory Sutherland for taking aim at logic itself.

In his book Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas that Don’t Make Sense, he does just that – arguing in his charming, rambling style for a greater value to be placed on the counter-intuitive, irrational and nonsensical. 

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

The central thesis however is not just to ignore logic, but to recognise that rationalising can take you to good, but to be brilliant you have to be irrational.

For example, agency JWT would set aspiring creatives the challenge of selling their interviewer one of two identical quarters over the other. One applicant described how they would take the coin, place it in Marilyn Monroe’s handbag, then sell it as a genuine 25-cent coin, as owned by Marilyn Monroe. On every rational level the coins are exactly equivalent in value, but in the mind of the audience one is significantly more valuable. 1+1=2, but in the human mind it can equal anything. Human behaviour is fundamentally irrational, so logic alone won’t suffice.

And it’s this fatal flaw of logical reasoning that Sutherland picks at again and again – a good guess that stands up to observation is still science. In fact, without guesses, science would never progress. As physicist Richard Feynman put it, “we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it… [then we] compare it directly with observations to see if it works.” Sutherland argues politicians and business people too often think the reliance on reason seems scientific, but ultimately science should be used to measure the results, not arrive at the solution.

Solving problems using rationality is like playing golf with one club.

Sutherland coins his own term for this counter-intuitive brilliance: “psycho-logic”. And the book is positively crammed with entertaining examples of this “psycho-logical” thinking in action – from why toothpaste is stripey to why the trains should be slower, and why bees go rogue to how the council could make you feel good about getting a parking ticket.

We can all fall for the apparent safety of that which can be safely supported with reason, but ultimately “logic should be a tool, not a rule” when we’re in the game of changing perceptions or arriving at a genuinely new idea.

When you abandon logic, you get magic.

Occasionally Sutherland conveniently categorises economists/politicians/consultants into strawmen for his arguments, but there’s a such a wealth of engaging and thought-provoking anecdotes that it’s easy to forgive his showmanship.  Sutherland’s intellect and vast professional experience result in brilliant story-telling that is rivalled only by Douglas Adams for the use of footnotes as entertaining sidebars.

Early on he describes it as a “tapas book”, best enjoyed in snack-sized bites, and taking that approach there’s something for everyone here. If nothing else, you’ll pick some good pub chat… speaking of which, when the pubs reopen remind me to tell you the one about why water has no taste.