To celebrate this week’s launch of his book The Wiki Man, we spoke to Rory Sutherland to find out which five books have influenced and inspired him the most during his illustrious career. At least it was meant to be five, but as you will see Rory found the parameters of the piece, well, overly constrictive, so it’s a bumper Bookshelf…
Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin Stephen Jay Gould
It’s about evolution and baseball and statistics and it was recommended about ten years ago in Marketing as a book which had changed a client’s way of thinking. I went and dutifully bought a copy and I would like to thank whoever it was who recommended it, it’s tremendous. It helped me look at evolution and life on earth in a completely different dimension, with a new respect for insects and also for statistics and the interpretation of statistics.
I would put it up there with The Selfish Gene and Impossible Mountain by Richard Dawkins, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan and The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow.
I genuinely think a far greater part of maths teaching should be teaching statistics and probability. You can get through life perfectly well without having to work out the surface area of a cone, yet we use and abuse probability in practically every decision we make in our lives.
We should also teach Darwin in schools – it is one of the most important things you ca do to change people’s way of looking at the world, not least avoiding the bias people have of assuming everything has to have a purposeful narrative – sometimes shit just happens.
The Armchair Economist Steven Landsburg
I picked this because I think people should be taught what is neat and elegant about free market economics. I’m not a literalist who thinks the system is perfect with no need for qualification. Along with the insight of Darwin and maybe Bayes we have to understand the insight of Adam Smith. At least sometimes self interested actions can lead to outcomes that are collectively beneficial. It’s also good for understanding the overlap between Darwin and Smith, sometimes they conflict but sometimes they cohere.
Discover Your Inner Economist Tyler Cowen
It’s similar to Landsburg but a wonderful, wonderful primer if you’re sitting at home with flu like I was when I read it. It is very strange that most people in marketing go through their lives without being able to use an economic model to understand what is going on. The overlap between psychology, marketing and economics is fascinating and gave rise to behavioural economics. The problem with marketing is that it does not have a model, it has a process involving research and a little bit of validation. What I suddenly realised reading this book is that if you are an economist or a mathematician you have a model, you have first principles and if you get stuck you can go back to these principles.
He also has a great blog, Marginal Revolution and that was where I found about Nudge by Richard Thaler.
It seemed to be an academic validation of things that I and other marketeers had thought for a long time – relatively small things have big effects on human behaviour – choice architecture, framing, loss aversion etc. I got one of the first five copies in the UK and was able to write about it in The Spectator and that coincided with me taking the IPA presidency. This was a natural gift to marketeers it gave them something like a model about how people behave and how that differs from what you might naturally predict using logical models of self interest.
Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman
His writing about the science of happiness and his studies into bias and decision making seems to me to help put human psychology at the centre of problem solving. People do not solve problems by looking at people any more, the system has become managerialised and decision are made by people who sit staring at balance sheets. They develop an inhuman model and impose it on the people for whom it was intended.
The ISA makes perfect logical sense to an accountant but not enough people take it up because it surrounded by layers of bureacracy and confusion.
We can solve problems backwards, look at people and use that insight to determine which buildings or transport networks to build. One of things Kahneman or Taylor or Paul Dolan at the LSE is starting to win is this argument, saying let’s not try and solve this problem with litigation, or taxation or crass incentives why not try solving it using psychology?
Being Digital Nicholas Negroponte
This is another interesting book that says that DNA is effectively digital – the human body is basically like the picture on your Sky TV. I happened to read a copy just at the point the digital revolution was taking off and it made me realise how significant it was.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle
One reason is I like detective fiction, and there’s an element of me that enjoys marketing problems because I see them as a kind of detective work but the other reason, is that even though Conan Doyle is not brilliantly regarded as a literary writer Kinglsey Amis ranked him immensely highly as a prose writer
It’s similar with David Ogilvy, Neil French, Dave Trott – people with ad backgrounds who we should be more proud of. They write about relatively complex things with spectacular clarity and as Kingsley Amis would say that is the first skill of a writer – you can add baubles like literary allusion and motifs but can you write clearly and unambiguously in a way that causes no pain to the person reading you?
The Clicking of Cuthbert P.G. Wodehouse
PG Wodehouse is another one – the most perfect work of artistic creation in the history of the world, far, far superior to the Sistine Chapel or Chartres Cathedral, is his golfing short story called The Clicking of Cuthbert.
I must have read The Clicking of Cuthbert more than 30 times and actually that is something interesting about all these books – they are all re-readable.
It’s a bit middle brow, I’ll give you that but it truly gives me pleasure every time I read it. If the original typescript came up for sale I would really delve into my bank account for that.
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