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What’s the problem with logic? What do people value more than things? Why should businesses ignore what their customers say?

In Alchemy, Rory Sutherland suggests that, to solve economic and political problems, we should leverage people’s illogical—and even magical—ways of thinking. If business and political leaders can better understand the human psyche, they can use it to tackle the issues of the modern world.

Read more for several Rory Sutherland quotes from Alchemy that will give you a good sense of the book.

Rory Sutherland Quotes

Science and reason create technological marvels, but they’re less successful at shaping human behavior. Since humans are irrational creatures, irrationality can be a useful tool for pushing various agendas big and small.

As vice chairman of the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, Rory Sutherland merged commercial advertising with behavioral science to “hack” the human mind. In his book Alchemy, Sutherland shares what he believes are the faulty assumptions of standard economics, the peculiar quirks of human perception, and why meaning is more important than fact.

We’ve put together several Rory Sutherland quotes from Alchemy and provided them along with some context and explanation to help you understand Sutherland’s ideas.

“The human mind does not run on logic any more than a horse runs on petrol.”

The irrational ideas and behaviors that our minds come up with aren’t meant to be perfect or even correct; the purpose of the unconscious mind is not to determine the truth of the world but to promote our survival as a species. It often does so using unfair bias, faulty heuristics, and magical thinking. Sutherland argues that, instead of treating these reactions as defects in the human psyche, our unconscious logic is a lever that we can use to persuade people and influence behavior that’s more powerful than reason alone. Ignoring the unconscious blinds us to potential pitfalls as well as unexpected, “irrational” solutions.

“We don’t value things; we value their meaning. What they are is determined by the laws of physics, but what they mean is determined by the laws of psychology.”

The key to understanding human perception is to recognize that our minds focus on what objects and events mean to us much more than their physical details. Sutherland writes that this particularly applies to how we value and react to things. The magic in engaging the unconscious mind lies in using the most unlikely, illogical, and sometimes outright silly tactics to alter how people perceive something’s value, and thereby change their behavior. This is where unreason triumphs over logic—by making an object or event seem outlandish, you instinctively draw the mind’s attention to it and trick people into reframing their perception.

“The problem with logic is that it kills off magic.”

Sutherland says that, in any situation involving human beings, 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 healthier food, the “magic” of unreason can be far more persuasive than logical arguments and facts.

“For a business to be truly customer-focused, it needs to ignore what people say. Instead it needs to concentrate on what people feel.”

Faulty “rational” assumptions don’t just harm the public, they do a disservice to the businesses that make them. For instance, many industries rely on market research to determine what products and services to offer, but market research rests on the assumption that people know the reasons behind their decisions. To find the real reasons for consumer behavior, Sutherland argues that businesses need to drill deeper than superficial market questionnaires, sometimes asking questions to which consumers and businesses think they already know the answers. Sutherland argues that unconscious motivations are consumers’ real driving factors, and any logical explanations they give for their choices are rationalizations provided after the fact. 

“Evolution is like a brilliant uneducated craftsman: what it lacks in intellect it makes up for in experience.”

Sutherland says that, as annoying as the difference between human perception and objective reality can be, our cognitive biases evolved for a reason. For example, our brains place disproportionate importance on anything that stands out as unusual. This derives from our survival instincts—in the wild, any unexpected sound, movement, color, or smell might signify danger, and our minds reflexively focus and ramp up our attention on that particular thing. Even if our conscious reason might say there is no threat, our unconscious mind says, “Better safe than sorry.” Sutherland says that it’s a waste of time to argue with the unconscious—it’s far more productive to engage with it instead.

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.

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.

Rory Sutherland Quotes From Alchemy (+ Context)

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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