All is relative – thinkering with a perception

How many problems of life can be solved actually by tinkering with perception, rather than that tedious, hardworking and messy business of actually trying to change reality? Here’s a great example from history.  Fredrick the Great of Prussia was very, very keen for the Germans to adopt the potato and to eat it, because he realized that if you had two sources of carbohydrate, wheat and potatoes, you get less price volatility in bread. And you get a far lower risk of famine, because you actually had two crops to fall back on, not one.

The only problem is: potatoes, if you think about it, look pretty disgusting. And also, 18th century Prussians ate very, very few vegetables — rather like contemporary Scottish people.(Laughter) So, actually, he tried making it compulsory. The Prussian peasantry said, “We can’t even get the dogs to eat these damn things. They are absolutely disgusting and they’re good for nothing.” There are even records of people being executed for refusing to grow potatoes.

So he tried plan B. He tried the marketing solution, which is he declared the potato as a royal vegetable, and none but the royal family could consume it. And he planted it in a royal potato patch, with guards who had instructions to guard over it, night and day, but with secret instructions not to guard it very well.  Now, 18th century peasants know that there is one pretty safe rule in life, which is if something is worth guarding, it’s worth stealing.Before long, there was a massive underground potato-growing operation in Germany. What he’d effectively done is he’d re-branded the potato. It was an absolute masterpiece.

Also in Turkey Ataturk, rather like Nicolas Sarkozy,was very keen to discourage the wearing of a veil, in Turkey, to modernize it. Now, boring people would have just simply banned the veil. But that would have ended up with a lot of awful kickback and a hell of a lot of resistance. Ataturk was a lateral thinker. He made it compulsory for prostitutes to wear the veil. What Ataturk realized actually is two very fundamental things. Which is that, actually, first one, all value is actually relative. All value is perceived value.

In Prussia, from about 1812, 1813. The wealthy Prussians, to help in the war against the French, were encouraged to give in all their jewelry. And it was replaced with replica jewelry made of cast iron. Here’s one: “Gold gab ich für Eisen, 1813.” The interesting thing is that for 50 years hence, the highest status jewelry you could wear in Prussia wasn’t made of gold or diamonds. It was made of cast iron. Because actually, never mind the actual intrinsic value of having gold jewelry. This actually had symbolic value, badge value. It said that your family had made a great sacrifice in the past.

If you look at products that have a high component of what you might call messaging value, a high component of intangible value, versus their intrinsic value:They are often quite egalitarian. Andy Warhol’s point about Coke. What Warhol said about Coke is, he said,”What I really like about Coca-Cola is the president of the United States can’t get a better Coke than the bum on the corner of the street.” Now, that is, actually, when you think about it — we take it for granted — it’s actually a remarkable achievement, to produce something that’s that democratic.

American Institute of Wine Economics, which actually does extensive research into perception of things, and discovers that except for among perhaps five or ten percent of the most knowledgeable people, there is no correlation between quality and enjoyment in wine, except when you tell the people how expensive it is, in which case they tend to enjoy the more expensive stuff more.

I propose that we can use psychology to solve problems that we didn’t even realize were problems at all. This is my suggestion for getting people to finish their course of antibiotics.Don’t give them 24 white pills. Give them 18 white pills and six blue ones and tell them to take the white pills first and then take the blue ones. It’s called chunking. The likelihood that people will get to the end is much greater when there is a milestone somewhere in the middle.

Try this quick thought experiment. Imagine a restaurant that serves Michelin-starred food,but actually where the restaurant smells of sewage and there’s human feces on the floor. The best thing you can do there to create value is not actually to improve the food still further, it’s to get rid of the smell and clean up the floor. And it’s vital we understand this.

What you also notice is that in any case our perception is leaky. We can’t tell the difference between the quality of the food and the environment in which we consume it. All of you will have seen this phenomenon if you have your car washed or valeted. When you drive away, your car feels as if it drives better. And the reason for this, unless my car valet mysteriously is changing the oil and performing work which I’m not paying him for and I’m unaware of, is because perception is in any case leaky.

Analgesics that are branded are more effective at reducing pain than analgesics that are not branded. I don’t just mean through reported pain reduction, actual measured pain reduction.And so perception actually is leaky in any case. So if you do something that’s perceptually bad in one respect, you can damage the other.