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Page last updated at 09:50 GMT, Friday, 8 August 2008 10:50 UK

What's your boss reading?

Man on beach

By Alan Connor
BBC News Magazine

Your boss may be about to return from holiday, possibly fired up with some fresh and funky thinking picked up through their summer reading. If that's the case, here's some help on staying one step ahead.

blue skies

David Cameron has set a reading list of 38 non-fiction books for Conservative MPs to work through on their sun-loungers.

And he's not the only boss who'll be dropping new buzzwords and outside-box thinking. Recent years have seen a spate of books marketed at managers, often from the worlds of "behavioural economics" and pop psychology, and yours may be the latest to enthuse about nudges, tipping points, wikinomics, or - for those behind the curve - long tails.

Oh wow

These books are easy to spot: they have a simple metaphor, usually expressed in a single word that makes for a large-type, grabby cover. They relate a string of Bill Bryson-style anecdotes or quirky experiments to elicit "oh wow" moments from the reader and to suggest that everything you believe is laughably wrong. Words like "secret" and "undercover" are likely to appear in the secondary title.

And they tend to insinuate that their central simple metaphor explains everything you've ever wondered about, from why people pick their nose to how wars start.

Economics getting tough

There's actually nothing new in explaining how people decide or why people believe - it's called sociology. But if your boss wouldn't want to be caught with a sociology book in their luggage, there is now a range of delicious bite-sized chunks in books with titles like The Undercover Economist, The Rogue Economist and The Hidden Side Of Everything. Economics - once academia's dry "dismal science" - has decided to get tough.

If your choice of reading is something lighter - or perhaps something heavier - fear not. Here's the Magazine's cut-out-and-keep guide to the snappy phrases and golly-gosh anecdotes of some of the most popular books, so you can nod along as the envelope gets pushed.

NUDGE (more info)
Nudge Nudge

THE BUZZWORDS: You'll know your boss has read this if he or she starts talking about:

• Econs (people that are perfectly rational but sadly imaginary)

• Homers (real people who err, but in predictable ways - after Mr Simpson)

• Choice Architecture (designing objects and situations, preferably to anticipate and discourage those predictable errors)

• and, of course, the Nudge (a reminder that you might be about to do something you might regret)

THE ANECDOTES: Among a grab-bag of optical illusions and riddles, Nudge is rich in anecdotes - the favourite of most readers involves fake creepy-crawlies to improve hygiene in Dutch pissoirs, as described by Mark Easton [see links in box, right], the moral of which is that small things can make a big difference.

The book also tells of Chicago movie-goers who are given free tubs of stale popcorn. No-one enjoys it, but those with the king-sized buckets eat more than those with medium-sized buckets. (Moral: we're not good at exercising self-control.)

And shadow chancellor George Osborne is enamoured of the Minnesotan tax collectors who gave up on fines and leaflets reminding people to file their returns and instead publicised a statistic at a crucial moment: they told Minnesotans that most of their fellow tax-payers had already completed the forms. "The result?" enthuses Osborne, "the number of people submitting tax forms shot up almost overnight." (States can use the actions of one group of people to influence another.)

THE SURPRISING IDEA: Thaler and Sunstein claim to have the power to unite two warring camps: those who favour legislation and regulation to improve the lot of mankind, and those who have no truck with the nanny state, political correctness, or health and safety gone mad.

Others have claimed to square that circle before, of course - the book's final chapter is called The Real Third Way in a tip of the hat to New Labour-style thinking - but the authors maintain that Nudges, being low-cost and leaving people free to take the "wrong" decision if they wish, are the best of both worlds.

What is genuinely new is the sight of mainstream politicians taking an interest in what academics would call "explanatory mechanisms in the social sciences" - though they may find that they have to read a lot more books than Nudge before they have enough building blocks for a robust policy or two.

THE BLOGGER'S VERDICT: Will Davies at Potlatch is worried that politicians think there's something new in the idea of influencing people without constraining their choices: "[I]f this is news to government wonks, this suggests that government thinking lags behind business thinking by approximately forty years."

Davies also wonders whether anyone believes that the Econs ever existed in the first place, asking "when economists go and buy household cleaning products in the supermarket, do they think they select Mr Muscle on the basis of calculation?"

BLINK (more info)

THE BUZZWORDS: You'll know your boss has read this if he or she starts talking about:

• Thin Slicing (seeing patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow "slices of experience")

• The Locked Door (blocking off the mind from too much deliberation)

• Warren Harding Errors (or, judging a book by its cover - after the "presidential looking" Harding, now usually rated the worst inhabitant of the White House)

THE ANECDOTES: The epitome of Blink thinking is tennis coach Vic Braden's hunches about when a player is about to serve a double fault. Braden realised that he was always able to tell when a double fault was imminent, regardless of how well he knew the player and of the player's level of skill. "It literally scared me," said Braden. (Moral: we don't always know why we know what we know.)

We also hear about a "tasting booth" offering samples of jam to Californians, sometimes stocked with six varieties and other times with 24. 30% of customers who had six jams to choose from bought some; only 3% of those faced with 24 jams made a purchase. (When we are forced to go beyond snap judgments, we get paralysed.)

And we see snap judgments in action with an experiment which sent similar-looking, conservatively dressed customers to Chicago car dealers to enquire about their cheapest vehicles. In the experiment, the price offered by the salesmen varied noticeably by the race and gender of the customer, with black women offered $1195 over the odds, and white men $752. (Our snap judgments may cause us to lose customers.)

THE SURPRISING IDEA: Gladwell argues that we do not know why we make decisions, but that instinct can lead to the "right" decision better than thinking things through. His book is still selling well three years after publication, presumably as a result of many impulse buys.

A book called Snap Decisions: Sometimes They Work And Sometimes They Don't would presumably fly off fewer shelves, but it could equally describe the contents of Blink. Gladwell acknowledges that we need to be aware of contexts which can lead to snappy decisions being wrong, as in the case of auditions for classical musicians - if you can't see who's playing, you won't be swayed by whether they "look right".

How to tell the difference between good and bad hunches is another question - and possibly another book.

THE BLOGGER'S VERDICT: Gladwell has plenty of fans, grateful for some thoughts about the subconscious mind. At the forefront of his equally vociferous detractors is Steve Sailer at Vdare, who pithily and dismissively summarises the book as follows:

"Go with your gut reactions, but only when they are right. And even when your gut reactions are factually correct, ignore them when they are politically incorrect."

Yes Prime Minister

THE BUZZWORDS: You'll know your boss has read this if he or she starts talking about:

• Captainitis (leaders failing to recognise how servile their charges are likely to be)

• Franklin's Strategy (you are more likely to persuade someone that has helped you than someone you have helped, after Benjamin Franklin)

• The Magnetic Middle (when people are aware of the average behaviour of others, they gravitate towards it themselves)

THE ANECDOTES: As the title suggests, there are 50 opportunities for anecdotes in Yes!, and they come in thick and terse and fast. Many are based on experiments, for example: people in a photocopier queue are more likely to allow someone to queue-jump if they use the word "because" when asking to, regardless of the content of the reason given. (Moral: give reasons for requests, rather than assuming the other party already knows your reason.)

Wholesale beef buyers spend twice as much if they believe there is a beef shortage, and seven times as much if they're told that that this shortage is not generally known about. (To be persuasive, give inside information and indicate when it is scarce.)

Surveys were sent out - some with Post-It notes asking for completion; some with a handwritten note and some with no covering note. 75% of sticky note recipients duly filled in the survey, compared with 48% of the second group and 36% of the no-noters. Adding a sign-off of "Thank you!" and the sender's initials increased response rate. (Personalising a request makes it more persuasive.)

THE SURPRISING IDEA: In the preface, the authors write: "Persuasion is a science. It has often been referred to as an art, but this is an error."

Yes! is a prime example of a book which compiles experiments and exercises from psychology journals and presents them to the potential buyer as foolproof "secrets" that will give them the edge over colleagues and rivals - or, as in the subtitle in the American edition, "50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive".

THE BLOGGER'S VERDICT: Olivia Mitchell at Speaking About Presenting enjoys the sections which contradict the idea that you should "focus on the positive", preferring the idea of "loss aversion" as a persuasive tool, and takes from the book other tips for those forced to do presentations at work, such as the suggestion that asking people to give their name makes it more likely that they will be civil to you - a lesson still being learned by newspaper messageboards the world over.


THE BUZZWORDS: You'll know your boss has read this if he or she starts talking about:

• Flipstars (people or companies that seek success through "freedom from convention")

• Innovations Clubs (readers of Flip who swap tips on flips)

• The Aspirational Inside (the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves - why you might prefer a Gucci bag to a convincing fake)

THE ANECDOTES: Sheahan is bigger on the friend-of-a-friend approach than on apparently clinical studies, such as his pal who vowed never to buy a BMW "because everyone has a BMW", then did buy one - but only after going through the motions of test driving a range of cars. (Moral: we create our own reasons for changing our minds.)

We also hear about Sherman Poppen, who strapped two skis together to make a toy for his daughter, and Jake Burton, who persuaded ski resorts to allow a version of this on to their slopes, anticipating the multi-billion-dollar snowboarding industry. (Persuade people that your crazy idea is not so crazy.)

And from history, we briefly meet John Harrison, the working class joiner who created a longitude clock that located a ship's position at sea with extraordinary accuracy but who had to fight to receive the £20,000 prize offered by the King for such a device. (Go outside your company when looking for innovation.)

THE SURPRISING IDEA: All of Fl!p [sic] is one relentless surprising idea, essentially that everything you ever thought you knew is 100% wrong, and more specifically that mass market success can be found by innovating in the fringes, expressed in a string of aphorisms like "to get control, give it up", "feelings are more important than facts" and, inevitably, "style is substance".

THE BLOGGER'S VERDICT: Rusty Weston at My Global Career asks about the Australian twentysomething Sheahan "When was the last time you learned something useful from someone a couple of decades younger than you?".

He finds "a lot of useful advice", but notes that the "over-the-top title is typical of non-fiction books these days. Unlike Sheahan, I'm not trying to exceed my wildest imaginings - I'm angling for meeting my goals."

Thanks for your comments. A selection appears below.

Just goes to show - as a psychologist and social policy analyst - that our political leaders continue to rely on flashy spin and nice sounding ideas rather than the hard graft of sound policy research dependent on high quality social science. There's no free lunches in understanding human behaviour...
Adam Cooper, London, UK

Have ever wondered what motivates the writers of these snappy titles? Why they do it and how they do it? Well here's the secret. The writers are often nothing other than lazy hacks or similar pressing the hyped up anecdote and/or results of psychosocial studies (you betcha!) into the service of making some dollars! Another of the writers' secrets is to call on the services of the exclamation mark to inform the reader know when they should experience excitement! Or astonishment !!! If you would like to know more then send me some dough and you will receive some tired and trite stuff just right for the ill-educated that are crying out for more of this stuff !!!

Mike , Leics

A friend of mine once read multiple management books full of useless anecdotes about about so called 'experiments' which had been carried out in various popular parts of the world (as if this somehow adds credibility to them) with results which challenged peoples usual ways of thinking. Unfortunately he spent so much time reading these books that he was failing to spend enough time looking at what was going on under his nose at work (and at home), was treating staff inconsistently, changing his behaviour toward them every time he had finished his latest read. This resulted in high staff turn over loss of knowledge etc. and ultimately he went out of business. This story has a happy ending as he is now living the high life out the profits of his latest books. You guessed it, he has written his own management books full of useless anecdotes, trying to persuade other successful business people with low self confidence to change their ways and probably alienate their staff. The moral of this story. I don't know, I've never read one of these books and don't believe in trying to convince people that my way of thinking is correct. Make your own mind up and see what works out best for you, your workforce and your margins.
Paul, Waikiki, Hawaii

The funny thing is that the chief protagonists of this clap-trap are usually hard-up for vocabulary. Ridiculous new-speak demonstrates nothing much beyond a trivial relationship with meaning and sincerity. Phoney and obscuring drivel marks out the user as an air-head.
Phil, Bournemouth

Read a lot of these books - worst by far "Strategy of the Dolphin" -"you can proceed to full Dolphinhood" if you successfully implement the stuff in this. Best to read good quality fiction and walk the streets to see what your customers are really doing
Archie Dempster, Greenock

I think people enjoy and find these books useful only when they say exactly what the reader believes or would like to be true. When they don't they dismiss them.
Wendy Ragiste, London

Buzzwords are really weak, you notice that most of them are reflexive, esoteric and usually sound like illnesses. Exceptions and rules are quite closely connected.
Mat, Penzance

Glad I don't need to read this rubbish to continue to operate my company 40 years on the job counts for more than 40 new buzz words And more so when the new found words start to date one as 40 weeks behind the latest solve it all word(s)
Wes Flierl, Rochester, NH, US

All these books seem to thrive on the "here are two examples of my rule, so my rule must be true." Surely as a collective mind we can come up with examples of where every rule failed - especially with respect to the Nudge stuff, which is faintly ridiculous in the power it asserts for its claims!
Marc, Cranfield

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