Alchemy: A Viable Alternative to Logic


It was fun to critique the new book ‘Alchemy’ by the great Ad-Man / Mad-Man Rory Sutherland for the Behavioural Science Club – especially given my background as both a professional marketeer and behavioural scientist. A toxic combination perhaps!

While the very word ‘alchemy’ conjures up images of medieval sorcery, witchcraft and test-tube brimming laboratories, the book is far from this. The insights were simple but like any great advertiser knows, it fell on one basic big idea.


And that is that logic is worshipped too much in business at the expense of creativity. You never get fired for being too logical or sensible and can always explain behaviour with a post-rationalisation lens. It provides a security blanket that is comfortably kept in place by many functions and leaders.

But the great leaps or ‘moonshots’ happen when more random reflection is enabled. The crazy ideas happen – the self-driving cars or holiday in space concepts. The psychological aspects of behaviour should be treated with the same degree of respect and seriousness as logical aspects. In business, they just aren’t. By focusing more on the unconscious motivations of employees, consumers, citizens, companies would go a lot further a lot quicker.

Using a good analogy from Jonathan Haidt: "The conscious mind thinks it's the Oval Office, when in reality it's the press office."

The conscious mind is not in the control it thinks. There is much that we do that we are unaware of and even when made aware, we deny it or forget it. And that creates reputation risk.

Nonetheless, the category of things which do not make rational sense produce great results ie Alchemy. The plea to be more open minded about asking basic questions and digging into seemingly obvious answers is well made. Apparently, “You don’t become rational the moment you put on a suit”.


Perhaps not, but clothing primes certain behaviour and the risk of groupthink and conformity is far more acute when wearing a symbolic uniform. Priming studies show how the very presence of a briefcase compared to a backpack prompted more cooperative or competitive behavior with participants.[1] Similarly shown when a white coat is interpreted as a doctor’s coat compared to a painter’s smock.

A Gigerenzian in many senses, the plea for people to use intuition and gut-feel is illustrated in much consumer behaviour. It is rightly argued that in business, the battle is as much technological as psychological.


However, when companies continue to prioritise IQ over EQ, profit over people and left-brain over right-brain thinking, the implications for innovation in product or service is clear. When I last checked, the financial service industries had over 130,000 different mutual funds. That’s a lot of choice for an average consumer!!


The key point is that if you really want to influence people’s choices, you have to bypass a degree of reason. Being overly tied to the rational prevents looking for unrevealed preferences rather than stated preferences. Just like Uber or AirbnB have done – companies that investigated an unmet need and filled it. The best ideas don’t necessarily make rational sense. It is as important to reflect on how things make you feel as much as how they make you think.

[1] Kay, A. C., Wheeler, S. C., Bargh, J. A., & Ross, L. (2004). Material priming: The influence of mundane physical objects on situational construal and competitive behavioral choice. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 95(1), 83-96.