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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With Science

Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With Science

Posted on February 15, 2012 and read 9,026 times

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Rory Sutherland needs little introduction. Now the Vice-Chairman of OgilvyOne and Ogilvy & Mather UK, Rory began his career as a teacher and then worked his way up through Ogilvy from the planning department to junior copywriter to Executive Creative Director. Recognized for his immediate instincts about the power of digital and changing media, Rory is one of advertising’s brightest minds.

The immediate past President of the IPA, Rory dedicated his two-year term to the greater adoption of Behavioural Economics in the UK’s Advertising and Media industries. He is the author of a technology column for the Spectator (the world’s oldest continuously published English-language magazine) called “The Wiki Man,” which is also the title of his recent book.

Rory’s writing is in high demand, and IHAVEANIDEA is appreciative for the insight into the reading that catches Rory’s attention. What words inspire Rory Sutherland? I’ll let him explain.


The intention behind the launch of Ogilvychange is to marry the best creative and planning talent found in agencies to the latest thinking to emerge in academia – from psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience.

This may seem like an odd marriage. A bit Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. And creative people are often slightly suspicious of “science”. I don’t blame them. Because, time and again, they have found that a particular kind of science has been used to denigrate or dismiss many of their most promising ideas. Or that it applies a kind of methodological straitjacket to the process of solving problems or evaluating ideas – which seems completely alien to the way people’s minds work in the real world.

There is a name for this kind of science. It’s called “bad science.”

What often characterizes bad science is a kind of overreach: the urge to apply the same mathematical certainties found in Newtonian physics, engineering or double-entry bookkeeping to questions involving complex systems – such as meteorology, psychology or mass human behavior. Some scientists refer to this trait as “physics envy.” It comes from the desire to create simple mechanical models for movements and forces which are, in reality, far too complex to be explained by simple formulae. You can usually spot people suffering from physics envy: one common symptom is that they are incapable of appreciating any quality that cannot be expressed as a numerical value. They judge architecture by the square foot, art by the auction price and advertising via pretesting scores.

What is interesting is that, generally, these people aren’t actually scientists. They merely have an idea of what looks “scientific,” and have learned through experience that anything that has some semblance of a mathematical model attached will be much easier to sell to their colleagues and superiors. Business schools are rife with this kind of bad scientific thinking – and so are businesses themselves. In any organization there is a danger that the need for every decision to appear rational causes them to become psychologically blind.

By contrast the brightest people in science are rather suspicious of this kind of thing. The brightest economists have been quick to spot that emotion and instinct – and herd effects – may play a greater part in influencing behavior than rational persuasion. (In 2003, a psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, became the first non-economist to win the Nobel Prize for Economics). Real scientists realize that the complexity of the human brain and of mass human behavior do not generally allow for simple, linear mechanical models. And they recognize that what’s really important cannot always be reduced to a numerical value. A number of braver thinkers are even starting to claim that logic is dangerously overrated.

What you will find when you read the better scientists is actually that the creative person’s instinct may often be more psychologically astute than the client’s obsession with hard, factual, rational persuasion. Great creative ideas (How else can a month’s salary last a lifetime…. No one ever got fired for buying IBM…. If only everything in life were as reliable as a Volkswagen) often appealed to human psychology in ways only understood after these lines were conceived. Making an ad funny or likeable may be more important than the rational argument that it contains (we bought Smash because we liked the aliens, not because we seriously thought it would replace the potato) . And you may learn that the conventional “scientific” ad agency approach, where planning acts as the pathfinder squadron for the creative department may often be wrongheaded. In fact the greater part of scientific discoveries rise from imaginative tinkering and imaginative leaps – later followed by postrationalisation.

In an ad agency, we always have to postrationalise our best ideas before we can sell them. That’s because the reality of how we have ideas (they are often a product of our unconscious) is simply too random and frightening for our clients to accept. The only danger of postrationalisation is that it describes how an idea “should” have been arrived at, not how it actually is. It therefore pays a tribute to logic, which is actually owed to the imagination. And it causes the wrongheaded belief that progress arrived at through tinkering or imaginative leaps is somehow cheating, when in reality it is how most significant ideas (powered flight, DNA, penicillin, the world-wide web) are created.

That, I think, is what Bill Bernbach meant when he said that persuasion is “an art, not a science”. You simply will not arrive at great advertising through the rigorous application of logic. But good science will help you understand and explain what is good about your idea – once you have had it. Reading these books will also help you come up with a far wider range of ideas, because you will learn that advertising (in the broadest sense of the word) works in far, far more ways than you previously thought.

If your previous encounters with “science” have been disheartening, you will find reading these books surprisingly uplifting. In fact it may even help make copywriters and art directors a teeny-weeny bit arrogant again; no bad thing in my view. You are often better scientists than you know.


tylerc Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With Science

Tyler Cowen: Discover your Inner Economist.






econaturalist Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With Science

Robert Frank: The Economic Naturalist





armchair Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With Science

Steven Landsburg: The Armchair Economist



safersex Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With ScienceSteven Landsburg: More Sex is Safer Sex

These first four books are really an introduction to economics, rather than behavioral economics or psychology but (even if you are incensed by Landsburg’s libertarian approach to environmentalism) they are enjoyable in themselves, and will give you an appreciation of the workings of markets and incentives that will hold you in good stead. As an additional bonus, most account people are clueless about economics, so throwing phrases such as “price discrimination”, “experience good” or “information asymmetry” into your conversation is a good way to intimidate them.

gutfeeling Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With ScienceGerd Gigerenzer: Gut Feelings: The Hidden Intelligence of the Unconscious 

 This is one book everyone should read. It will introduce you to the idea of the “heuristic”, one of the concepts in psychology which every creative person or marketer should understand. It will also show – to the astonishment of almost everyone except creative people – that instinctive decision-making, though universally assumed to be worse than rational cognition, may in fact be superior. A precursor to Gladwell’s idea in Blink.

Lexicographical choice is also a concept every planner and creative person should understand, and will come as a great eye-opener to all those creatives who, when sitting on juries, have been asked to rank creative work according to various, weighted measures – Originality, Craft, Copy, Execution, etc. You always cheat, don’t you? You decide what should win and back fill the numbers afterwards. And you’re right to do so. As Gigerenzer shows, human decision-making does not work in the formulaic, mathematical way the people who produce these forms believe it should.

fastslow Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With Science Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Ironically Kahneman and Gigerenzer are engaged in an academic rivalry and violently disagree on many details. But Kahneman will introduce you to equally valuable ideas: the two-part operation  of the human brain; loss aversion; satisficing (a concept without which it is impossible to understand the role of brands).


nudge Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With ScienceRichard Thaler & Cass Sunstein: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness





predictably Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With Science… and Dan Ariely:Predictably Irrational.

Again there’s a feud here. Don’t worry. Both are good books.



ident Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With ScienceGeorge Akerlof & Rachel Kranton: Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being

How all decisions are not only affected by rational ideas of gain or loss, but by how they accord with our own assumed identity.



cialdini influence Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With ScienceRobert Cialdini: Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion

An academic, Cialdini went undercover at car dealerships and with salesman to discover what causes people to make up their minds and buy.




strangers Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With ScienceTimothy D. Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves.

A wonderful book explaining how our minds really work – and how most of the workings of our minds happen beyond our conscious awareness. A good book with which to intimidate the worse kind of market researcher. Or, as David Ogilvy put it, “People don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”



spent Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With Science

Geoffrey Miller: Spent






mating Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With Science… and Geoffrey Miller: The Mating Mind.

The first is the only book to explain consumerism in terms of Darwinian Signalling. Signalling is another vocabulary addition that can prove useful to creatives. White space doesn’t “say” anything but it “signals” a very great deal.





herd Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With ScienceMark Earls: Herd

The idea that we make decisions independently of each other is dangerous nonsense, as Mark shows.





bornliars Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With ScienceIan Leslie: Born Liars

Understanding the role that the fear of deceit plays in decision making is vital to understanding how advertising is a source of instinctive reassurance.





mindspace Rory Sutherland: Blinding Us With SciencePaul Dolan: Mindspace

Paul works with us at Ogilvychange. Not a book, but a very useful pamphlet commissioned by the UK government, you can find a pdf here . 




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