Key takeaways on the tyranny of logic with Rory Sutherland

  • The marketing and advertising industry has a tendency to focus a little too heavily on “pure creative” and “pure targeting” and not heavily enough on the other “five ‘P’s”.
  • Behavioural science can teach us to spot behavioural biases in ourselves. That is, spotting moments where one’s mental models used for convenience start becoming theories, traditions, and traps.
  • Are you a prison of your own narrative, propagated by the status quo that tells you that you have to live and work in a certain way? It is vitally important to question our knee-jerk conclusions and avoid “imagination-free decision-making”.
  • There are many, many cases in science and in life where you cannot proceed through deduction or induction because the information you need to make a decision is not present in all its forms.
  • If we are not having imaginative ideas about the why, we are missing brilliant stuff.

Step 1: Break out of the prison of your narrative by questioning why you think the way you do.

  • Big data has paved the way for a major trap in the business world: a need to make your decision-making look scientific.
    • This leads people within an organization to engage in “imagination-free decision-making”.
    • In business, sometimes we need the “cheeky kid” to pitch in alongside the kid who gets top marks for giving answers in line with what is established by the curriculum.
  • We need behavioural science as a model and a framework for inquiry, but we need it married to creativity every time.
  • Decision-making under uncertainty
    • In real-world decision-making, even if you have amazing data processing capacity, you never know everything you need to know to answer the question.
    • There are known unknowns and even unknown unknowns.
      • You can be scientific; but, you can only be scientific if you’re also creative.


Step 2: Make room for subjective decision-making

  • Remember that “subjective” does not mean “impure. Most people’s definition of “subjective” is “you could get in trouble for that kind of thinking”.
  • Over-reliance on data is just a way to deflect any potential blame from yourself.
  • Subjective decision-making has nothing to do with the quality of your decision, but on how you defend the decision in the event that it goes wrong.


Step 3: In most scientific problems, you do not solve a problem through sequential logic, but through abductive inference.

  • Whenever you notice something unusual, ask yourself what would need to be true for this to pertain, or for this to be normal.
  • Many brilliant businesses fail due to their insistence on purely data-driven decisions.
    • If we are not having imaginative ideas about the why we are missing brilliant stuff.


Q and A on the tyranny of logic

Q: How can we learn more about this subject apart from reading your book?

A: I suggest my course Behavioural Economics on 42 Courses; the websites and; and the books:

Q: How do you sell solutions to companies if you don’t know what their problem is?

A: You can go in with a hypothesis and case studies. I also recommend pattern recognition as a form of practical, pragmatic creativity. That is, find patterns in other things which you then apply somewhere else. Also, invite people from other disciplines. You are more likely to find a solution or a problem that can be solved in a conversation between marketing and logistics than you are if you purely look within marketing or purely look within logistics.

Q: How can marketing content help a business grow?

A: Most content helps a business grow, but it’s not always possible to quantitatively measure that growth—or for that content to receive credit even if it has a positive impact on your ROI. Nothing new, whether a product or a service, ever gets adopted without some kind of marketing behind it.

Q: What is your view on “brand purpose”?

A: It’s not a good idea to polarize your audience, and it’s never a good idea to insult your customers. The jury is still out on Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad, but the Gillette ad was more or less insulting its customers. If you engage in communication for a worthy cause, note that there are two kinds of communication: You make the message, and you experience the consequences of the message. Brands grow from “breadth of penetration” which basically means “level of acceptance”. It’s really important for every marketer to realize that, depending on your context and circumstances and past experiences, the way you interpret things is different from the next person’s. Balance the worthiness of the cause with the quality of the message. The most important thing to consider is that it is possible to communicate a worthy cause and have it be counterproductive. The point is to avoid black-and-white generalizations that insult entire groups of people opposed to your brand’s viewpoint—particularly those in your customer base.