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Review of Alchemy: The magic of original thinking in a world of mind-numbing conformity by Rory Sutherland

I have been intending to read Alchemy for some time, but maybe because of Rory Sutherland’s ubiquity I didn’t feel the need. The book is mostly a restructure of his extensive range of anecdotes and stories about behaviour and advertising.

There is some structure around various themes including reason, signalling, satisficing and, most interestingly for me, psychophysics. He covers some of his many interests over the book, including the doorman fallacy, changing the taste of Cadbury Dairy Milk by changing the shape of the bar, the Red Bull placebo, and the importance of the focusing illusion. New to me were the renaming of pilchards as Cornish sardines (to great success) and the role of Amotz Zahavi in costly signalling theory.

Alchemy is a very enjoyable and easy read, containing a lot of wisdom about creativity, innovation, communication, and advertising. For those not familiar with his work and take on advertising, I recommend this. At the start of the book, Rory Sutherland calls it a ‘provocation’ which it is.

I also recommend his ten rules of alchemy as summarized below:

  1. The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea
  2. Don’t design for average
  3. It doesn’t pay to be logical when everybody else is being logical
  4. The nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience
  5. A flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget
  6. The problem with logic is that it kills of magic
  7. A good guess which stands up to observation is still science. So is a lucky accident
  8. Test counterintuitive things only because no one else will
  9. Dare to be trivial
  10. If there were a logical answer, we would have found it

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