Can illogical thinking help us defeat climate change?

PODCAST with Rory Sutherland

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It sounds, well, illogical. After all, isn’t the whole issue of climate change rooted in logic? In facts and science?

Well, if the burgeoning field of behavioural science teaches us anything, it’s that human beings are not always rational, nor do they always listen to facts.

In reality, argues Rory Sutherland, “The human mind does not run on logic any more than a horse runs on petrol.”

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals

In his book, Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense, this giant of the marketing world lays out a case for bringing more creativity and, yes, illogical thinking, to global problems.

In this podcast, he addresses the question, “How can we persuade more people take the climate challenge more seriously?”

Stream or download the full podcast episode below:

Podcast transcript

Rory Sutherland 0:03

The rationalistic requirement that you explain the workings of every possible solution in advance before you can test it, is actually a limitation on the pace and range of discovery.

Teymoor Nabili 0:21

In the era of digital disruption, behavioural economics and the innovator’s dilemma, increasing numbers of people are questioning whether the traditional faith in logic and planning may in fact, be obstacles to progress.

Rory Sutherland 0:39
The constraint on business decision making that everything has to make sense in advance is actually a creative limitation, which imposes huge opportunity costs on business.

[Start of podcast]

Teymoor Nabili 0:54

Hello, and welcome to another Tech for Impact podcast. Today I’m talking to Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of one of the world’s largest advertising agencies. He spent the last 30 years trying to understand what makes people buy things, and how best to use that knowledge. In his recent book, Alchemy, the Surprising Power of Ideas that Don’t Make Sense, he argues that illogical thinking can be uniquely powerful. And so I wondered, can illogical thinking help to make people more environmentally conscious?

Rory, many thanks for talking to me today.

Rory Sutherland 1:35

Thank you very much for inviting me. And I’m so glad you enjoyed Alchemy. It’s a pleasure when it’s discovered by audiences I never really anticipated, which is always the joy of writing a book, I think.

Teymoor Nabili 1:45

I’ve come to it from the perspective of somebody who talks a lot about sustainability and environment and climate issues. And you touch on those things very, very briefly on two or three occasions in the book. But the one thing that you did say in the book that made me think I need to talk to you about this, was the phrase, “Might it be easier to save the environment, if we talked less about doing so?” And you’re posing a solution to the climate crisis that I hadn’t even considered. So that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.

But perhaps it might be better to begin the conversation talking about the underpinning. Tell me what the essential thesis of the book is?

Rory Sutherland 2:22

Well, the essential thesis of the book is that if you have any problem which involves human behavior, it is a extraordinary mistake and an extraordinarily self-imposed creative limitation, not to consider the possibility that the solution to the problem might be psychological, or a marketing problem, or an idea in terms of presentation or recontextualising something to the human mind. In other words, a perceptual solution, rather than necessarily a solution that involves objective reality: a change in the technology, or a change in the price.

Teymoor Nabili  3:00

You use one sentence in the book where you say, the human mind does not run on logic, any more than a horse runs on petrol.

Rory Sutherland 3:08

So we’ve evolved to perceive the world in terms and to respond to the world in terms of what things mean, not in terms of what they are. And if you recontextualise something, you can make it mean something different, and the resulting behavior will be completely different as a result. I’ll give you a very simple thing which has occurred to me very recently about solar power. The quality I think, and the efficiency of the technology has improved immensely. The cost of the panels has dropped dramatically. So to some extent, we have already solved that problem from an economic and technological perspective.

But there remains one huge psychological hurdle, which no one seems to notice, which is the installation of solar panels on your home requires a one-off irreversible expenditure of a five figure sum. Humans are very reluctant to engage in those kinds of transactions. It’s like asking someone to get married on a first date. Not many of us do that.

Now, that seems to be a fairly shallow psychological insight. But it strikes me that if you could develop solar panels in a modular form, so I could start by having a solar powered conservatory or a solar powered summer house, with an expenditure of a few thousand pounds, and then gradually ramp it up to a larger and larger part of my household consumption over time, the psychological hurdle, which is yet to be overcome, might be significantly reduced.

Teymoor Nabili 4:34

But is the psychological hurdle that we’re talking about here, it’s a slightly bigger one. We’re looking to do more than just get them to put a solar panel on the roof. We’re looking to get them to buy into the idea that this is a problem at all. And one of the biggest issues that I think that the entire world faces is that people are simply unwilling to accept the fact that there is a problem at all.

Is there a way we could use those arts of marketing and communication to persuade them simply that they should be taking this seriously?

Rory Sutherland 5:01

Don’t don’t get completely fixated on trying to change attitude before you change behavior. There’s a very naive view of human psychology, which is that attitudinal change is a necessary and sufficient precursor to behavioural change. And it simply isn’t true. So to increase recycling rates in London, one of the things we did was a campaign that basically just said, One bin is rubbish. And the point of this insight is that actually, whether you recycle or not, is not actually perfectly correlated with your attitude to environmental degradation or the climate. It’s very largely a function of the environment in which you find yourself.

I would argue that if you put Jeremy Clarkson in a French Villa for three weeks with a triage bin, Jeremy would probably bother to separate out his waste into three separate categories. If you put someone who claimed to be, and indeed was, a committed environmentalist, in that same Villa for three weeks with only one bin, by week two, they’d be starting to do what the Irish call ‘feck it’. the Irish always described themselves as having a ‘feck it’ bin, which is you look at the recycling bins. And if you can’t make up your mind, you put it in the ‘feck it’ bin.

Now, one of the points I’m making is you don’t have to change behavior by converting people to your cause.

I’m sorry, it’s a really important insight, this, because in some senses, the environmental movement might have unnecessarily polarised and alienated people on the political right, by becoming too closely identified with one particular wing of politics. Now, if you refer to environmentalism as rewilding, for example, you’ll find quite a lot of right wing people are quite interested by it. This is reframing.

They’ve had a wonderful experiment where they discovered if you talk to religious groups in the United States, and you didn’t talk about environmentalism, which they see as hippies, [and instead] you instead talked about stewardship, which is a concept already familiar in New Testament and Old Testament thinking, those same people were very, very receptive to the general principle.

So I’m against the politicisation of this anyway.

Teymoor Nabili 7:13

I do see your point. And I’ve written it down again, from your book, you say, ‘If we wish people to behave in an environmentally conscious way, there are other tools we can use rather than an appeal to reason or duty’. Just explain that if you would, what kind of tools can we give them? What kinds of tools can we use?

Rory Sutherland 7:32

I’ll explain it in terms of soap and hygiene. So before penicillin came along, the greater gains in human longevity and health and quality of life, were probably achieved more by Unilever and Procter & Gamble than they were by the science of medicine to a great extent. And we should include things like sewerage, and other improvements to the built environment. But general practices of cleanliness behaviours, led to that huge improvement, as much as any medical advance did up until antibiotics.

Now, if you look at most soap advertising from the 1890s, or the 1910s, it’s a very Darwinian appeal to selfish self interest, which is to say that basically, unless you wash with our soap, you will die single and alone. It has to do with your own individual attractiveness. So if you can build a selfish benefit into the pro-social benefit, and you can get people to adopt a pro-social behaviour without necessarily having to resort to an appeal to the public good. Why not do that, if it achieves the behavior you want?

And you might argue, let’s reserve appeals to altruism, for those circumstances where only pure altruism can solve the problem, and let’s try and deploy our altruism where it’s actually necessary and unavoidable rather than squandering it in things, which could just as well be achieved by changing the built environment, changing the choice architecture, changing the social norms, for example, or conventions?

Teymoor Nabili 9:11

You say, why not do that? But let’s get on to, what does that mean? What is that, that we can do? Well, one of the one of the phrases again, in your book is ‘Tiny things that you can discover when selling bars of chocolate can be relevant in how you encourage more consequential behavior’.

So how do we do that? How do we encourage consequential behavior through these insights that you’re providing when it comes to climate change?

Rory Sutherland 9:37

I mean, let’s be honest here. What will probably happen in the next 12 months is I will buy an electric car, perhaps a Tesla. And I will buy the electric car for all kinds of reasons, but not least, that they are incredibly cool. Having bought the Tesla, I will then become more environmentally conscious and more overt, because my attitude is being shaped to actually align with my behavior, not the other way around.

And I will probably start teasing my friends who still have diesel cars by basically saying, ‘Well, of course you could come along when your car, if that is you want to completely destroy the planet in the process of making the journey’. Okay? Now, the point I’m making…

Teymoor Nabili 10:25

The old peer pressure trick.

Rory Sutherland 10:26

…You don’t necessarily have to change people’s minds in order to change their behavior. And indeed, by changing people’s behavior, you can hasten the process of changing people’s minds.

Teymoor Nabili 10:34

Okay, you are a black belt in the art of persuasion. I’m coming to you for a free consultation, I run a website dedicated to the proposition that if I provide solutions to sustainability problems in developing countries, and people adopt them, then we are making progress. Give me some advice. How do I market this proposition? How do I market these ideas to a general public that seems unwilling to think about it?

Rory Sutherland 11:00

I think that there is a fundamental problem which we need to solve before we solve anything else, which is, we’re asking everybody to do everything simultaneously. It goes back to that point I made about solar panels, that you’re asking people to make a one-off irrevocable commitment of a five-figure sum, which might turn out to be a failure, which is irreversible. Now, I’m saying if we can create modular solutions to this problem, we can get people to make a small investment. And this is foot in the door theory, if you want me to borrow about how you sell small things like Bibles or door to door encyclopedias, one of the things you know is that if you can get someone to make a small commitment, it’s much easier than to go back and ask them to make a larger one.

Now, what we’re doing environmentally is we’re shouting at everybody about everything. And that demands a level of behavioural change, a level of habit disruption, and a level of breaking social norms, which is simply unrealistic within our known parameters of social behaviour. It’s asking people to effectively give up too much simultaneously.

Now, my contention would be if a government or any other highly respected global organization, presented me with a series of choices, and they said, ‘Here are five big things you can do. Here are five medium sized things you can do. And here are five small things you can do. And we want you to choose and commit to doing two of them. Two of the big things, two of the medium size things, two of the small things for the next year’, very interestingly, it’s quite difficult. If I told you to cut down clothes, actually, clothing is a very, very bad contributor to the environment. We never talk about this. But the fashion industry has a fairly massive footprint. Strangely, it’s very difficult to ask people to buy fewer clothes.

So I made a decision, which is just, this is one of the an example of one of the big commitments you could ask people to make, don’t buy any clothes, or shoes or apparel for a year. Now, interestingly, I did that. And it’s quite interesting, because I suddenly discovered I had an old pair of very good shoes, and I could send them off somewhere. And for a fairly hefty amount of money, they come back as new. Now, I wouldn’t have discovered that if I hadn’t imposed the temporary, arbitrary and binary constraint on my own behavior.

Teymoor Nabili 13:32

What what you’re doing is you’re suggesting that governments should be thinking more about this. But are you also suggesting that it’s governments that should be leading this situation? Or should we be trying to persuade consumers on an individual level?

Rory Sutherland 13:46

it’s a mixture of a choice problem and a coordination problem, you need a central respected body, to tell people where they can really make a difference. Now, I’ll give you an example. I met Steven Pinker once and Steven Pinker apologised for getting involved in student campaigns which said, ‘Turn off your mobile phone charger when you’re not using it’. And the reason Pinker apologised for lending weight to that campaign was, he said, it’s actually a behaviour that makes you feel good, but it makes piss-all difference to be honest with you, to energy consumption. So those behaviours are actually quite dangerous because they have a high symbolic value, but they tend to burn altruistic potential in a behaviour, which to be honest, isn’t that valuable. Whereas putting your dishwasher on or replacing your boiler or not flying for a year can make an enormous difference.

And so, if we had a body, which tells people ‘Here are 20 behaviors, a mixture of big, medium and small, that make a big, medium and small difference’, we’re not asking you to to adopt all of them because change happens at the margin. It doesn’t happen generally overnight, barring a pandemic or something of that kind. We’re not asking you to adopt all of them, and we’re not asking you to adopt them in perpetuity. Okay, but we’re simply saying for the next 12 months, I might commit not to fly, not to buy any apparel. And I’d like to commit to buying a small solar or wind powered device to my home again. Now, some people, by the way, including poor people, will be able to tick those boxes anyway. Because they say, ‘Well, I’m not I can’t afford to fly. And, I don’t buy any clothes anyway’. Now, you’re asking people to make the change, where it makes the most difference to the planet at the lowest cost to them. You’re also asking, quite rightly, the rich to make a bit more of an effort than the poor.

Teymoor Nabili 15:36

But how can I ask governments to take on board what you’re saying to understand the message of this psycho-logical thinking, as you put it in the book, and and begin to present their own solutions and their own actions in that framing?

Rory Sutherland 15:52

This is an interesting problem, which comes down to an issue in physics and statistical mechanics called ergodicity. And if you try and solve for the average, and you treat everybody as the average person, and you give them the advice to behave as the average person would, what you end up doing is you give them too much advice, and they end up doing nothing.

Okay, let me give an example of this from health. Most people aren’t actually very sensitive to salt, it doesn’t matter if they eat salt, but there’s a percentage of people whose blood pressure is very adversely affected by the consumption of salt, they don’t compensate very well. And so it’s a health message that says ‘Don’t eat salt’ to everybody. Okay. And you do see an improvement in overall health, if overall salt consumption comes down. But actually, the improvement in health only occurs among the 5 or 6% of people who are affected.

Now, actually, on its own, if that were the only piece of health advice we ever gave, ‘Don’t use salt’, that would be perfectly effective. And I think it would be justifiable and it would work. The problem is, is when you multiply that by ten, you say, don’t eat salt, don’t eat this, don’t eat that, exercise more, take up jogging. If you give each individual 17 pieces of advice, rather than allowing each individual to choose the three that will make a difference to them, disproportionately, at the lowest possible cost to their behaviour–you have a different form of information going on.

And the problem of communicating to people as though the average is representative of the whole, is a problem that physicists noted in the 19th century in which economists and actually, advertising people haven’t noticed. There are lots of examples of this. If you actually look at by the way, at things like diabetes, you’ll discover–the last chapter of Matthew Syeds’ superb book Rebel Ideas talks about this–which is there are people weirdly, who are sort of pre-diabetic. But once you discover if you look at them individually, as they can kind of eat cream cakes, but they mustn’t eat nectarines. I think I’ve got that, right. Okay. Now, on average, you’re better off eating more fruits and eating fewer cream cakes. But actually, the advice to the individual would be completely different.

And so by creating a consensus around the climate, and maybe it requires a Greta, maybe it requires a governmental organisation, maybe it requires a general movement. By actually telling people, essentially, ‘Let’s maximise the value exchange between planet and consumer in a way that respects your different circumstances, your different preferences, but also directs those flexible choices into behaviours that do genuinely make a difference’, rather than symbolic behaviors that are as a cynical friend of mine used to say, of an advertising campaign, ‘It’s like pissing yourself in a dark suit. You get a nice warm feeling, but nobody else notices’.

Sorry to add a bit of advertising vulgarity to the conversation, but you shouldn’t have been turning off your mobile phone chargers, don’t get people to do that, because it just, you know, they feel great, they feel they’ve made a difference… [but] piss-all happens.

Teymoor Nabili 19:03

The government can put legislation to stop people doing things, it can provide economic incentives.

Rory Sutherland 19:08

can use behavioral economics and legislation in combination, that might be the most powerful thing of all. What I object to is that people with an engineering mentality, people in the economic mentality, and people with a technological mentality, and people with a legalistic mentality, are deterministic thinkers. And they automatically define problems in terms of their own imagined solution. And the probabilistic and experimental psychological approach never even gets a look in from day one because by the time those people have defined the problem, they have frozen psychology out of the solution set.

Teymoor Nabili 19:46

Let me turn it around a little bit and bring another angle to the conversation because again, as I said earlier on, part of what seems to be the problem is a willful denial of some sections of the public or in some cases, just a fear of acknowledging the problem at hand. And that could be as you pointed out, because we’re framing it the wrong way or some political angle comes into it.

But another point that you make in the book is, is to uncover obstacles that are hidden. You talk about unconscious obstacles that may come up in people’s minds. And I’m wondering whether in the in the case of climate change, is there a way we could actually go about looking for that unconscious obstacle? What would we do to see if if that were there and be able to counter it?

Rory Sutherland 20:29

Experiment! An experiment without only trying logical things, but trying things that at first glance, make no sense. So the constraint on business decision making that everything has to make sense in advance is actually a creative limitation, which imposes huge opportunity costs on business.

I’ll give you an example. There are certain products for example, I don’t know if you’ve got a Philips air fryer–you’re in Asia, so you probably do. It’s much more common out there. Do you love it? Like a child?

Teymoor Nabili 21:07

I appreciate it.

Rory Sutherland 21:07

Okay. But, but the point about the air fryer is, it doesn’t make sense in advance. But when you buy one, you become a convert. There are an awful lot of things. There are far more great ideas out there that you can post rationalise, than there are great ideas out there that you can pre rationalise. And so the rationalistic requirement that you explain the workings of every possible solution in advance, before you can test it, is actually a limitation on the pace and range of discovery.

Now, I’ll give you a lovely example of this. There’s a guy on YouTube, who’s a nutter. And he’s developed, go and search on YouTube for solar trailer. He’s decided he wanted his Tesla to be solar-powered. And so he got together a bunch of solar panels on a terrible trailer, and an inverter. And he says that, ‘If I leave my car outside plugged into the solar trailer, if I don’t drive anywhere for three days, my whole car is essentially charged through solar power’. So I went and I looked at this solar trailer, and I said, you’re a genius. Because actually, I might buy one because A, if it didn’t work out, I could sell it because it’s on wheels. And a bloke could just turn up and buy it from me right? Now, the solar panels on my roof are not saleable.

Now, this lunatic, I think, has discovered the best product I’ve seen in ten years. Because I would buy a solar trailer to be honest, just to charge my computer in the garden when I work out there in the summer. I might buy it because when my friends come in electric cars, I can use it. I will then get an electric car, because I’m going to be working from home three days out of five. Three days out of five, I won’t be driving anywhere anyway. And I get the extraordinary emotional hit that when I’m driving around in that car, I know it’s been powered entirely by the sun, which makes me feel like a god.

Now, what I’m saying about that is nobody, nobody in the entire rationalist deterministic environmental industry had come up with a solar trailer. It’s a guy on YouTube, who just did it to see if it was technologically possible out of a spirit of play. I think from a marketing perspective, you stumbled on genius.

Teymoor Nabili 23:20

All right. Let me end with a difficult question then for you. How do we persuade people in your industry to adopt your method of thinking, because at the moment, what we have, sadly, is the advertising, the marketing, the PR, the communications industries, spending an awful lot of time acting on behalf of companies who want to cover up their absence of climate awareness, rather than spending that creative energy that you all have in your industry, in coming up with the kind of solutions you’re talking about?

Rory Sutherland 23:50

There are a lot of behavioural biases. There’s a wonderful phrase by Harry S. Truman, where he said, ‘Everything is possible just so long as you don’t care who gets the credit’. And it’s worth remembering that committed environmentalists may be part of the problem here. That altruism might be part of the problem. And the reason is that people who want to show and signal that they care about the problem, automatically adopt highly direct solutions to the problem, when the best way to solve the problem might be invisible and oblique rather than direct and highly visible.

Because if you want to lay claim for the credit, for your own good intentions, you don’t come up with soap being sold as a sex product. You want soap to be sold as a public health product. But actually, the sex instinct is pretty strong in human beings, why not exploit it?

Now I’ll give you an example. If you suddenly were at a campaigning organisation, which worried about the provision of groceries to the poor, it would set itself up as a charity and it would make itself highly worthy, and it would kind of make itself look, it would make its customers feel slightly–should we say, slightly disadvantaged through the use of this product. Now the product would look wonderfully well-intentioned. Now, you could argue that Ocado and Tesco and Sainsbury’s, by offering home delivery, have solved that problem obliquely and commercially.

And so there is a danger that altruistic direct solutions crowd out or simply become noisier than highly cunning, oblique solutions, which understand that the way to get people to do something isn’t always to ask them to do it. It’s to change the context in which they choose their actions in the first place.

Teymoor Nabili 25:33

That’s a really interesting concept, but it doesn’t quite answer the question that I asked. And that is, the question is that the one of the major problems that we have…

Rory Sutherland 25:42

It’s central to the question, because a lot of these things started in the wrong place, unconsciously. People aren’t thinking, ‘How do I solve the problem?’ They’re thinking, ‘How can I solve the problem in a way that I get credit for solving it?’

Teymoor Nabili 25:56

That’s not the question I’m asking. I mean, I’m just wondering, where we have a corporate sector, and and indeed, an entire capitalist mindset that says, profit is paramount. I’m wondering, is there a way we can bring your thinking and your theories and the study of behavioural science to reframe human value and say, actually, profit is not necessarily more important than the–

Rory Sutherland 26:22

I’ll give you a very interesting example where I actually came up with an idea which showed there’s not necessarily a conflict. Here are two very interesting things. If you ask people to do you a favour, strangely, they tend to end up liking you more. And therefore the most underused thing that businesses do is simply asking people nicely, because the economic assumption assumes that nobody will change their behaviour without an incentive to do so.

The second thing is an example where a company was giving away a very good offer. And I can’t tell you what it is because it’s confidential, unfortunately. And I said, ‘Why don’t you build a recycling requirement into the offer, you can only have this saving if you commit to recycling the product you’re purchasing’. And they said, but that’ll make the offer less attractive. I said, No, in the world of Alchemy, actually imposing an ask increases the perceived value of a saving.

Teymoor Nabili 27:22

Explain that.

Rory Sutherland 27:22

It’s, you could call it the effort reward heuristic, that the value of something is affected by the actual effort we put into acquiring. I’ll give you a lovely example. Pick your own strawberries doesn’t mean the same as cheap strawberries. We tend to assume that we’re getting a deal because of something we’re doing rather than because the strawberries aren’t very good. And so by making, by saying we can give you this 20% discount, but only if you commit to then recycling the product afterwards, the discount has a higher perceived value because of the condition you impose on it. Now that is completely counterintuitive to economic thinking, or narrow, naive rationalist thinking, but it’s a proven psychological bias, which has been shown to work time and time again.

Teymoor Nabili 28:08

And it is is the employment of what you have called Alchemy in your book.

Rory Sutherland 28:12

Don’t assume either or, and don’t assume a zero sum game. It’s a mistake.

Teymoor Nabili 28:17

It’s a fascinating way of thinking, Rory, and I appreciate your explaining to me. And I do hope that your next book will be explaining multiple ways in which we can begin to deploy some of your ideas in the environmental conversation. Rory, I appreciate you talking to me. Thanks very much indeed.

Rory Sutherland 28:32

It’s a pleasure, Teymoor. Thank you very much indeed.

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Teymoor Nabili

Publisher & CEO, Tech For Impact

Rory Sutherland

Vice Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather Group

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