Gears working in the brain

What’s psycho-logic? How can you use it to persuade people to do something or buy something?

It’s essential to acknowledge and tap into the instinctive, unconscious reasoning behind how people make decisions. Whether you’re selling a product, planning a business strategy, or trying to convince people to eat healthful food, the “magic” of unreason can be far more persuasive than logical arguments and facts.

Keep reading to learn what Rory Sutherland has to say about the value of psycho-logic and how to use it.


Three psycho-logic tools that we’ll explore include the use of subtle cues to signal trustworthiness; the placebo effect, in which the mind can trick the body; and the mind’s tendency to make choices that are good enough to achieve a given want—going for whatever works rather than striving for the best possible outcome.

#1: Signaling

The first psycho-logic tool of persuasion we’ll consider is signaling—the things we do to demonstrate our intent and trustworthiness to others. The human mind uses signals as a shorthand from which to form broader judgments about people, groups, and institutions. By being deliberate about the signals you send, whether or not they seem rational on the surface, you can gain people’s trust and nudge them in favor of whatever message you’re trying to convey, even if they don’t fully understand why they trust you and believe what you say. Sutherland explains the traits that make signals strong and effective, how signals are employed in the business world, and why signaling sometimes incurs short-term costs in the pursuit of long-term gains.

(Shortform note: While the forms of signaling Sutherland discusses are broadly universal, it’s possible to dig deeper into this topic and adjust the type of signals you send depending on the person with whom you’re communicating. In Surrounded by Idiots, communication expert Thomas Erikson identifies several different personality types and how to specifically adapt your behavior to send them the signals they’ll find the most persuasive. For instance, being brusk and direct is effective with ambitious personality types for whom politeness and people-pleasing behavior signal weakness. Erikson says you don’t have to be dishonest—only that you can communicate what you want while adjusting how you express it to suit your audience.)

Whatever it is that you want to signal—that you’re the right candidate for a job, that your toaster design is better than your competitor’s, or that your social media empire doesn’t really want to take over the world—Sutherland says words and logical arguments aren’t enough. A powerful signal that people will notice must:

  1. Be costly to the person or institution sending the message
  2. Show some degree of creativity in the message’s creation
  3. Include some measure of attention-getting nonsense

(Shortform note: While Sutherland backs up these statements with several examples from the advertising world, you should carefully gauge how much creativity and nonsense is appropriate for some situations. For example, consider job applications. Because employers may judge your resume within a matter of seconds, it’s important to make yours stand out from the pack in terms of time spent and creativity, but depending on the job you’re applying for, anything nonsensical or smacking of the wrong kind of creativity—such as bright colors or hard-to-read fonts—might have the opposite effect from what you intend by signaling the wrong kind of message.)

Persuasive Absurdity

Talk is cheap, and people realize this. Sutherland says the cost in money, time, or resources to create a unique message shows a certain level of confidence and commitment that a simple verbal argument cannot convey. Likewise, the human brain is programmed to ignore the ordinary or expected. For a signal to cut through the noise of everyday life, it must contain an element of the unexpected—and nothing stands out so much as the absurd.

(Shortform note: The neurological response that Sutherland describes is governed by the limbic system, which is considered one of the oldest parts of the brain on the evolutionary scale. In Maps of Meaning, Peterson explains how the limbic system is triggered when an unexpected sensory input clashes with your mental model of the world. This initiates your fight-or-flight response, but it also focuses the brain’s attention and curiosity on the new, incongruous information. While this is a basic survival reaction, the limbic system also reacts to humor, engaging the brain’s attention the same way. Communicators in addition to Sutherland have touted the value of hacking the limbic system as a way to get your message across.)

The idea that signals should contain some degree of nonsense is most easily demonstrated in advertising, writes Sutherland. Consider how many advertisements today contain a ridiculous or humorous element that has nothing to do with the product being sold, whereas more ads from decades ago focused on conveying logical reasons why a certain product or service was better. The ridiculous ad accomplishes two things—it grabs your attention in ways a logical ad wouldn’t, and it shows that the business running the ad believes enough in its product or service that it’s willing to spend the money, time, and creative effort to tell you about it in an amusing way.

(Shortform note: In the age of social media, absurdity in advertising can have an added benefit that Sutherland doesn’t mention—namely, that an ad can go viral as people share it with their online connections, boosting the message’s reach with no further effort on the sender’s part. Nevertheless, when using humor, be careful not to cross the line between surprising your audience and offending them. Humor and absurdity have to be measured against the tastes and values of your target audience so that a joke that lands wrong doesn’t tarnish your message.)

Show That You’re Serious

Powerful signals don’t have to be silly, but they have to incur a cost to be believed. Sutherland gives the example of a business that spends extra money providing customer service above and beyond its industry’s standard. This may not make logical sense from the perspective of short-term economic gains, but it does make sense if you assume the goal is to build unconscious trust in your consumers—leading to customer loyalty and increased profits in the future. Consciously or not, people recognize when another person or a business puts aside their short-term, selfish interest. Since humans are a social species, we’re hardwired to notice and believe any signals that demonstrate commitment to the community as a whole.

(Shortform note: The drives behind social behavior may offer clues to more social “hacks” than Sutherland covers. In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli lists several mental fallacies that we’re prone to because of our need to fit in. One is the trend to judge a behavior positively if more people are doing it—an irrational urge that’s key to the fashion industry. Our instinctive in-group, out-group bias has been central to the political realm since time immemorial, as is our bias in favor of authority. Where Dobelli and Sutherland’s ideas overlap is in our urge for reciprocity, the idea that if someone does something for us, we’re more likely to answer in kind—such as by rewarding a business’s good service by becoming a repeat customer.)

#2: Placebos

Another common phenomenon in which the mind and body behave with unreason (psycho-logic) is what’s known as the placebo effect—in which, for example, your body reacts to what you think is a drug, even if it’s just a harmless sugar pill. Though using placebos can seem dishonest to the rational mind (aside from their role in medical testing), Sutherland argues that the placebo effect is a legitimate tool we can use to hack our bodies and minds to achieve various beneficial outcomes—whether that’s improved health or a better mental state. To make this case, we’ll look at how the placebo effect works, the characteristics of effective placebos, and how the placebo effect manifests in areas of life beyond the medical field.

Sutherland suggests an evolutionary explanation for the placebo effect. Our bodies evolved to live in harsher conditions than most of us experience in the modern world. For that reason, it didn’t pay to be sick—the body’s immune response to illness temporarily weakens it, reducing short-term survival in the wild. According to this theory, our immune system only gives its full effort if we perceive that it’s safe to do so. A placebo works by telling our body that it’s safe to go into healing mode, and that doing so will likely be successful instead of leaving us vulnerable to predators.

In a sense, taking a placebo is a form of self-signaling. Studies show the placebo effect can induce positive outcomes even if a medication isn’t a placebo at all. Sutherland says this happens when a drug’s marketing campaign highlights one specific effect—for instance, that a specific variation of a painkiller is good for fighting headaches. The drug may be chemically identical to other versions on the market—the only difference being the words on the box—and yet, those who take it may actually feel a stronger reduction in headaches than if they’d taken the exact same drug under a different label. Via the placebo effect, you can signal to yourself the outcome you want, and your body will comply.

The Shape of a Placebo

Sutherland writes that, as with other signals, a placebo’s effectiveness depends on three factors:

  1. How much the placebo costs
  2. How rare we believe the placebo is
  3. How much effort is entailed in taking it

For example, consider a hypothetical herbal supplement that’s supposed to increase your concentration. If it’s cheap, easy to take, and available at any corner store, it won’t be effective because you won’t believe it. However, Sutherland suggests that if it’s somewhat expensive, can only be found at specialty shops, and has to be taken with food, a hot beverage, or only at specific times of day, we’re much more likely to believe in its power, and its “real” effects are more likely to kick in. Don’t think of this as lying to yourself—think of placebos as a way to hack your mind and body systems that you don’t have conscious control over.

Placebos aren’t limited to drugs you ingest. Sutherland argues that many of our ritualized and irrational behaviors send placebo signals to ourselves and others to produce a desired mental state or outcome. One example is a crosswalk button that doesn’t affect an intersection’s light cycle. The button is a placebo for reducing a pedestrian’s impatience, giving them a sense of control, and reducing the chance of them walking into traffic. Other examples include the objectively strange initiation rituals practiced by some clubs and organizations. The ritual triggers a placebo effect to heighten members’ sense of shared community, and the strangeness of it makes your mind take notice.

#3: “Whatever Works”

The third psycho-logic tool that you can leverage when trying to influence people is our unconscious preference for safety over perfection. Much of economics relies on the assumption that when faced with a problem, people work toward a “best possible solution,” but the human brain doesn’t operate that way. Instead, the mind seeks out solutions that are likely to work while minimizing the possibility of failure. It’s a subtle distinction best phrased by the truism, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Sutherland discusses how the unconscious mind veers away from reason to deal with uncertainty, what form this takes in a practical sense, and how the brain’s desire for a “whatever works” solution can be used as a tool for persuasion.

Logical problem-solving works within the confines of well-defined problems where everything comes down to a handful of easily quantifiable variables. In real life, though, every decision involves uncertainty, which makes logical decision-making exponentially more difficult. However, thanks to evolution, our brains cope with uncertainty far better than any mathematical model. Sutherland contends that in decision-making, reducing uncertainty is our unconscious goal. Rational optimization is impossible in a dark and scary world of unknowns, so instead, our brains try to be mostly right while reducing the odds of being catastrophically wrong.

A World of Trade-Offs

One common way we protect ourselves from a world of uncertainty is to reframe a problem so that instead of asking the obvious question—such as, “What’s the most efficient way to grow as much food as possible?”—we ask an alternate question that’s easier to answer, such as “What’s the safest way to grow something so that I won’t starve in case of a disaster?” Most of the time, we’re not consciously aware of the alternate questions that guide our decisions; therefore, Sutherland writes, these unconscious questions make many of our conscious decisions seem irrational. However, if you identify people’s unconscious needs, you can address them directly in ways that you’ll find are much more persuasive than dry, analytical logic.

People expect life to be messy and that every decision will involve a trade-off. Sutherland says that to win people’s minds, you should play into that expectation, even if “reason” suggests otherwise. If you’re selling a product or an idea that’s objectively better than the alternatives, present it as a trade-off anyway. We’re wired to believe that everything has a downside, so build a narrative as to why that’s the case, even if doing so involves some distortion. If you admit to imperfection while minimizing people’s feelings of uncertainty, you’ll be speaking to the unconscious mind’s happy place. According to Sutherland, that’s the magic to making sales, winning votes, and changing behaviors.

Exercise: Psycho-Logic in Your Life

  1. Sutherland contends that our rational minds are subject to the pull of our seemingly irrational unconscious in ways that can be used to “hack” our behaviors and perceptions. Think about the ways that psycho-logic affects your life and whether you see it as a benefit or a drawback.
  2. Are there any people you meet, such as nurses, teachers, or airplane pilots, whom you trust implicitly? What is it about them that signals their trustworthiness? What reasons can you think of (rational or otherwise) that would undermine that trust?
  3. Describe a situation in which your mind quickly leapt to solve a problem without mulling it over (for instance, when you misplaced your car keys). How well do you think your unconscious mind evaluated and judged the situation? What aspect, if any, of the solution seems absurd or irrational in retrospect?
How to Use Psycho-Logic: 3 Ways to Tap Into the Magic of Unreason

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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