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Alphabet, the holding company for Google, contains a division called X (founded as Google X) charged with devising what the company calls “moonshots”. Headed by Astro Teller, grandson of Edward, X eschews the usual business of making incremental improvements to focus instead on those rare but life-changing inventions which improve something by an order of magnitude. A “moonshot” is hence defined as a 10x achievement, where it becomes possible for something to be, at a stroke, ten times faster, ten times longer, ten times bigger or performed ten times more efficiently. In the case of the driverless car, the aim is to reduce by 90% or more the number of human fatalities on the world’s roads, thus making them ten times safer.

And I wish them luck. They certainly have the money and the talent. And in many ways they are right to focus on what they do. Most of the real advancements made in human history so far have come about through things which are ten times better than what preceded them. Steam engines were 10xWatermills. Trains were 10xCanals. Cars were 10xHorses. The Jet Aircraft was 10xTrain. The electric light was 10xGaslight. The Internet was 10xPrint. But it won’t be all that easy. In many of these areas, we are bumping up against the laws of physics and economics: it is unlikely in the medium term that 6,000mph mass air travel will be either feasible or affordable, say. In many areas of engineering we are running out of road. (Passenger air travel today is slower than in the late 1970s). So the 10x objective improvement, on which Google as an engineering entity is fixated, will become harder and harder.

But what about 10x subjective improvement?

What would happen if we could understand people ten times better?

I believe that insights from evolutionary psychology and social psychology present us with an enormous number of possible Xs. In fact, I think progress in psychology will be a greater source of Xs in the next 50 years than progress in technology.

As a marketer, I obviously value any opportunity better to understand ourselves and our true, evolved social nature. It is potentially a huge source of competitive advantage and differentiation.

And finding those Xs will be inordinately easier for us than for Dr Teller. Cheaper, too. And perhaps no-one need get killed in the attempt. There is a simple reason for this. Present day psychology leaves much more room for improvement than present-day engineering.

As with any scientific revolution, there is a very simple starting point for our psychological revolution: find out what everyone else is wrong about, then work from there. In our case, whether in policy-making or business, that simply means asking what psychological assumptions underlie a decision and asking two questions: 1) are those assumptions right or wrong and 2) what could we do differently if they are indeed wrong. Evolutionary psychology provides us with a wonderful new bullshit-detector for understanding the human feelings and emotional motivations which lie behind the cloak of reason.

And there are many, many cases where our assumptions are wrong. For instance, it is a sad fact of business and political life that no-one will ever get fired for acting as though economic theory is true. But economics, by attempting to reduce human motivation to a single dimension, is not only wrong, but immensely creatively limiting in the solutions it demands. Every solution boils down to bribing people or fining them. But if our minds are not monolithic, any attempts to appeal to a single motivation are fundamentally wrong – and, even when not wrong, imaginatively barren.

Yesterday, I found myself debating a seemingly ridiculous question. Why do people hate being made to stand on trains? Is it because it is tiring? Humiliating? Is the “made” more frustrating than the “stand” – I have often seen people choosing to stand when seats are empty? Is it mentally tiring keeping your balance? Or is it the banal explanation that your legs get tired? Or do you just feel cheated by the company which sold you a ticket on the implicit promise of a seat?

I don’t know the answer. But it is certainly worth a fortune if we could find out the truth. And it would cost very little.

As a marketer, I obviously value any opportunity better to understand ourselves and our true, evolved social nature. It is potentially a huge source of competitive advantage and differentiation.

The trick is to find things which are objectively similar and subjectively different. Or vice versa.

At a very trivial level, let’s take the Uber map. This does not make the wait for a taxi 10x shorter, but it does make it 10x less irritating. This comes from a very simple psychological insight that we have a peculiar evolved hatred of uncertainty (Tali Sharot’s new book The Influential Mind has a wonderful chapter on this.)

But let’s take this further. Can we make a hotel-stay 10x more enjoyable? Can we make travelling slowly 10x more enjoyable than travelling fast? Can we make the tax code feel 10x fairer? Can we make working feel 10x more rewarding? Can we make recycling a pleasure not a chore? Can we create 10xCooperation in a community? Could better psychology make war 10xRarer?

Here’s your man Charles:

“In the distant future, I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation..”

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Published On: April 4, 2018

Rory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather UK and co-founder of Ogilvychange, a behavioral science practice. He co-heads a team of psychology graduates looking for “butterfly effects” in consumer behaviour, small contextual changes that have enormous effects on the decisions people make.

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