The role of chance

A game of chance

A recipe for success

Several years ago my manager walked in with a pile of books titled, ‘what would google do.’ We should all read it to find the recipe of succes for our company.
In my pile of books, this one landed at the bottom, reflecting my reluctance to take it at hand. I have always been sceptical about glorifying the magic touch of leaders, and adhere to the saying, ‘if something seems to good to be true, it usually is.’
There were more management bestsellers like, ‘built to last’ and ‘in search of excellence,’ that investigated the differences between succesful and unsuccesful companies.

In control

I knew better than to challenge their vibes of success as it would have put me aside as someone who wasn’t striving for the best – a suicidal move in a company that wants to feel in control.

The role of chance

My gut feeling was confirmed years later, when follow up studies found sharp drops in profitability of the ‘excellent’ firms, and increasing returns of the unsuccesful ones.
The explanation of this phenomenon is offered by Daniel Kahneman* in his book ‘Thinking fast and slow.’
It is an established statistic fact called regression to the mean: The more luck is involved to create outcomes, the more these outcomes will regress back to the mean – exactly like they did in the follow up of excellent and lousy performing companies. The excellent ones were not driven by superior insights, but instead just surfing on a wave of good fortune.

Why we fool ourselves

Knowing this, then why do people still cling to fluffy success stories? Well, simply because they bring us a comfortable illuson of understanding. Our mind wants to construct coherent narratives about the past, that foster a sense of inevitability. We simplify reality to match a pattern we have seen before. This way we reassure ourselves that the world makes sense.
People are craving for stories that are concrete, assign a larger role to talent and intentions than to luck, and focus on striking events rather than the countless ones that failed to happen. We glorify Google, and forget about the flood of competitors that failed.


Business books reduce anxiety by showing that succes rewards wisdom and courage; ‘Yes, yes, my daily activities are meaningful’.
In reality, as there is so much luck involved, there is little to be learned. You cannot use these ‘business romances’ to predict the future.
Surely, motivational stories can inspire us, but they are no cookbook. Not forgetting the role of chance prevents us from finding ourselves all too important.

*For those who have read my previous blog about intuition, sorry, I just can’t get enough of the academic insights ‘thinking fast and slow’ offers and this blog owes a lot to it.


The power of the subconscious

Until recently, I fiercely believed in the power of intuition. Not in a chakra kind of way, with candle light and mysterious insights dawning on you after staring at a wall cross legged for a few days. No, my faith in intuition was based on the fact that our subconscious mind can absorb so much more information than our awareness, that is confined to six or seven items at a time.

I never believed in the traditional dichotomy of thinking and feeling, with intuition catalogued as the latter. It seemed and seems to me that feelings are an outcome of brain activity. A sort of overall qualification; positive-negative, relax-alert.

Untying the knots

When faced with complex matters, I relied on my intuition. Not in a simple stupid way, but after feeding it facts about the issue at stake. I talked to people and dug down the first layer of their stories, I asked the same questions over and over to different people, I chased figures, searched for benchmarks, – the whole shebang.
But I never believed in adding these facts, weighing them and then taking some kind of mathematically induced decision, especially not if my head was still sizzling with the intake.

Instead I would sleep on it, trusting that the knots under my skull would busy themselves searching for associations with their little brothers and sisters in there, while I was resting. These dense nodes of braincells would be weighing the evidence, letting their multitude vote for the final verdict, and shove it right under my nose the next day, by way of a breakfast treat. Everything sorted out. Thank you very much.

The fallacies of intuition

But now I am reading this book called “Thinking, fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman. It explains the ways of the intuitive (fast and effortless) and conscious brain (slow, tedious and very lazy). Whenever we let it, our brain sneakily slides into effortless mode. Kahneman calls the brain our machine for jumping to conclusions, and points out that although this may come in handy when crossing a road, it is far less adequate when solving complicated issues . All the fallacies of fast thinking parade through the book. Ouch!

Stories versus numbers

The fast brain particularly doesn’t digest numbers. It ignores percentages and likelihoods, and loves averages. Which is why you should never have an open discussion before letting people estimate something like a quantity. It will spoil the accuracy because too much importance will be given to dominant speakers, causing others to line up behind them. To make optimal use of people’s diversity, you should let them estimate quantities individually. Their combined mistakes will even out quite accurately.

The fast brain loves a good story, and effortlessly smoothes out all its inconsistenties to construct a simplified and coherent world view – even when based on scraps of information and small samples. Our fast forward mode hates doubt (too much work) to the extent that after a first impression most subsequent information goes to waste.

These tendencies cause the framing effect (you probably prefer a 90% survival to a 10% death rate?) and the base rate neglect (do you think that meek and tidy Steve is a farmer or a librarian? … You probably ignored the fact that there are much more farmers than librarians.) And we over estimate the prevalence of unusual and poignant stories over ordinary ones (reading Factfulness by Hans Rosling and Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker may immunize against that one).

The broken dishes study – less is more

One striking example of distortion by intuition is interesting for marketeers. A group directly compares two sets of dinnerware (one consists of of 24 pieces, one of the very same 24 pieces, plus 16 partially broken ones). When people are asked which set is worth more, they will say it’s the latter because it includes more. The rule of logic prevails.
But when separate groups each assess the worth of a single set, it turns out that the 24 pieces set is valued more than the 40 pieces set; the lower average value has dominated their evaluation. The rule of intuition imposed itself.

Anchoring effect – suggestive priming

The anchoring effect distorts judgment when people consider a particular value before estimating another one. The suggested value primes your estimate even when the values are unrelated.
This means that starting a price negotiation is generally a smart thing to do. The asked number will affect the other person even when he is determined to resist it. And it turns out professionals are almost as susceptible to this anchoring as laymen.

Anchoring effects are extremely powerful in decisions about money, like contributing to a cause. In one experiment the autonomous contribution was 64 dollar, a low anchor of 5 dollar decreased contributions to a mere 20 dollar. An extravagant anchor of 400 dollar on the other hand, pushed it to 143 dollar.

Challenge your intuition

The bad news for me is that being a social psychologist does not save me from these fallacies. At university we were fed facts and figures, when storytelling would have been better.

After reading the book I don’t intend to stop relying on my intuition, that would slow me down too much in my daily life that is littered with fast decisions. But I do want to single out important matters, and occasionally force my brain to challenge my lazy intuitions – and question those of others.

Evil marketing

Marketing as fraud

Bad reputation

Working for a few years in the non-profit sector has revealed the bad reputation of marketing to me:
Oh, you’re a marketeer, that’s selling two tubes of toothpaste for the price of one, hahahá!
Mahhhketing, that’s how you convince people to buy things they don’t need, right?

But marketing is no more than a means to an end, a tool to bring about change in an effective way. That makes it just as good or bad as the goal it serves.
Using marketing techniques to willingly bring xenofobe people to power isn’t my piece of cake, but yes, it has happened.

The horrors of marketing

To some extent marketing has earned its horrible reputation allright. When the purpose of adding value diminishes to a mere means to generate profit. When politics are no longer driven by convictions, and the will to power prevails. Then marketing becomes mere manipulation.

Marketing matured in an America where masses were lured into consumption to keep the economic engine going. Europe privatized essential public services, thus allowing revenue seekers to sacrifice quality for profits. Big data and fake news induce people to vote against their interests, and marketeers create common enemies as a vehicle to let power hungry candidates win votes in elections.
I have been on the brink of hating marketing myself…

Don’t shoot the messenger

But that is too easy. A goal that sucks, can be served in a brilliant way. A political party that I don’t support has the best campaign in my country, with crisp messages – practicing what they preach. I just hope it is not because they have expensive connections with the best agencies.
Some people think that only manipulation needs marketing, and worthwhile causes sell themselves. I don’t buy that.

The baby and the bathwater

Let’s not condemn marketing, and throw away this lovely baby with the bathwater. I think that not taking the trouble of finding out what your audience wants, and just blurting out a message is plain arrogance. No matter how good your intentions. It is what churches and NGO’s did in the past: we-know-it-all preaching to ignorant beneficiaries. Sending without receiving. This is no way to take people serious. And with the exception of a lucky shot, it is highly ineffective in promoting the behavior you want.

Good causes, bad results

I see governments wasting their effort on campaigns to inform the general public about a healthy lifestyle, yet at the same time increasing VAT on healthy food – when we know food choice is a matter not of knowledge but of impulse on the spot.

I see NGO’s ignoring the fact that consumers living in poverty let status prevail above their health (like everyone else across the globe), when using status as a trigger could bring about positive change.

I hear sales-pitches boring the shit out of potential institutional or business customers, when questioning them about what they want – and emphasizing added value exactly at that point, would have done the job.

Honest marketing stories

Marketing means assessing the needs of your target groups – customers, civilians, or users. It means using scientific evidence on effective interventions. It means addressing your audience in an engaging way. Only then your message will resonate.

I want to use the marketing expertise that I acquired while working in highly competitive environments, for worthwhile causes.

Sankofa – go back and take

Sankofa, look back and learn from your past

Struggling with the Dutch language

For thirty years now, I have been married to a Ghanaian who came to Holland in the eighties – when possibilities to study in his own country were limited.
When I first met him, he had just finished an intensive language course at a Dutch university, and was conversing in what I called ‘book-language’. Soon thereafter his careful Dutch got contaminated with my sordid expressions, like calling the kind of coffee he drank ‘dishwater’. It didn’t take long before he politely ordered “a cup of dishwater” in a local cafe.

Struggling with a Ghanaian language

He got his chance to make fun of me in return when I became fascinated by his mother tongue ‘Twi’, one of the Niger-Congo languages. ‘It is an easy language and we don’t write it,’ Ghanaians would tell me. But no way Twi was easy on me, being a tonal language – the meaning of a word changes when its length or pitch changes. I was hacking my way through a forest of papá, pápa, papaaa, paaapaaa, papa, high-low long-short etcetera for years – with ears that were never prepared for this singsong kind of language – before I finally learned how to engage in some simple conversation.

Learn from your past

And although Twi is indeed not written, I discovered it contains a wealth of proverbs, represented by symbols that look like an early form of writing to me (Chinese characters also developed from images). These proverbs are called ‘adinkra’s’.

Sankofa is my favorite one: It symbolises a bird that turns its head to look back at its past and learn from it. ‘San ko fa,’ literally means go back and take.


Accumulated experience is a big advantage of getting older – I will keep the disadvantages to myself. When I was young and freshly stuffed with book knowledge, I wandered through the office feeling utterly inadequate. I thought this was a personal shortcoming. Nowadays I know it hampers most of us at beginnings.
Experience helps to discover similarities between situations and predict possible outcomes – not like a wizard, but simply because you have been there before. You lived through.


Experience enables you to cluster details that you have muddled through one by one in the past, to mold these details into bigger chunks. Chunking helps to oversee large topics (I got this from Steven Pinker’s excellent book, ‘The sense of style’).
Experts often label their chunks with short inner-circle expressions which nobody else understands.

Admittedly, experience can be tiresome when it comes in the form of sheer repetition. Been there, done that…. Yawn. Sigh.
Still, having a basis of routines frees up headspace for real issues.

Causes that matter

I love looking back to use my experience for things that matter. I cannot be motivated by effective marketing techniques in their own right, they only acquire meaning when serving a worthwhile cause. That’s what I call, honest marketing.

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