Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense

by Rory Sutherland

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Featured image for Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense

I took this book out of  the library expecting to get annoyed with it. It posits that everything isn’t rational and I’m very much the rational scientific kind of person. Did I hate it? No, and I quite agree with the author most of the time. The author’s background is in advertising and his take on things is that “The human mind does not run on logic any more than a horse runs on petrol.” and I can wholeheartedly agree with that.  The author is definitely not against the use of logic but against the idea that everything has to have a logical explanation before it can even be considered. 

There’s a few places where I disagree with him and don’t think the examples he uses as examples of how illogical we are are actually particularly illogical. He cites the fact that we used aspirin for years without understanding why it worked as an example of how we don’t need an explanation for everything. I’d say that aspirin would pass a randomised controlled trial and do better than a placebo so we can figure out things work without needing to know exactly how they work. But then that’s the same kind of thing as an A/B trial in advertising, we can figure out advert A does better than advert B without needing an explanation as to why it does. So I guess I agree with him there as well really. And he also has a lot to say about placebos… there was definitely part of that section I found troubling as I think the deception practised by the homeopathic industry is on a different level to the useful placebo effect, but I can’t remember exactly what was said and don’t have the book to hand.

He has a whole example about spending a fortune on speeding up train times, he may have namechecked HS2 or I might just have presumed that was the target. I agree that a fraction of the money spent on making the whole train travel experience smoother and nicer would be a better use of money. He’s got a nice idea for an app based solution that could get you on the train faster when you get to the station which would save everyone time without building new lines - nobody likes to be waiting around. Whether that app would work or not it’s an example of a more creative solution that you can come up with when you don’t assume that people who say they want the journey to be faster actually mean that they absolutely must have the journey being faster. I had an airline experience recently that would have been much improved if the airline had just sent me a message telling me that the flight was delayed and kept me updated as to the actual time I needed to arrive at the airport. I find it’s standard on a European short haul flight to be at the airport waiting for the return leg when the outboard leg is only just leaving the home airport. Watching the departure time of that outbound flight is a much better guide to the actual time I need to be at the airport. But I don’t travel often enough to be completely sure on it. Better communication from airlines would be way more helpful to me than nicer facilities at airports. 

The alchemy reference in the title is about turning lead into gold, not by chemical means but by persuading people that lead is more valuable than gold to them, and that is basically what advertisments do, persuade you that one thing is what you want or what you want to do. The book has left me with a grudging respect for advertising and it has shone a light for me on the idea that decisions sometimes need to take into account things that can’t be directly measured. I’ve always been against the bad uses of maths but this has made me realise that there are more bad uses than I’d thought.