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Perspective is Everything by Rory Sutherland (Transcript)

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Rory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland., an advertising guru,  at TEDxAthens, makes a compelling case for how reframing is the key to happiness.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Rory Sutherland_ Perspective is everything


What you have here is an electronic cigarette. It’s something that’s, since it was invented a year or two ago, has given me untold happiness. A little bit of it, I think, is the nicotine, but there’s something much bigger than that. Which is ever since, in the UK, they banned smoking in public places, I’ve never enjoyed a drinks party ever again. And the reason, I only worked out just the other day, which is when you go to a drinks party and you stand up and you hold a glass of red wine and you talk endlessly to people, you don’t actually want to spend all the time talking. It’s really, really tiring.

Sometimes you just want to stand there silently, alone with your thoughts. Sometimes you just want to stand in the corner and stare out of the window. Now the problem is, when you can’t smoke, if you stand and stare out of the window on your own, you’re an antisocial, friendless idiot. If you stand and stare out of the window on your own with a cigarette, you’re a fucking philosopher.

So the power of reframing things cannot be overstated. What we have is exactly the same thing, the same activity, but one of them makes you feel great and the other one, with just a small change of posture, makes you feel terrible.

And I think one of the problems with classical economics is it’s absolutely preoccupied with reality. And reality isn’t a particularly good guide to human happiness. Why, for example, are pensioners much happier than the young unemployed? Both of them, after all, are in exactly the same stage of life. You both have too much time on your hands and not much money. But pensioners are reportedly very, very happy, whereas the unemployed are extraordinarily unhappy and depressed. The reason, I think, is that the pensioners believe they’ve chosen to be pensioners, whereas the young unemployed feel it’s been thrust upon them.

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In England, the upper middle classes have actually solved this problem perfectly, because they’ve re-branded unemployment. If you’re an upper-middle-class English person, you call unemployment “a year off.” And that’s because having a son who’s unemployed in Manchester is really quite embarrassing, but having a son who’s unemployed in Thailand is really viewed as quite an accomplishment.

But actually the power to re-brand things — to understand that actually our experiences, costs, things don’t actually much depend on what they really are, but on how we view them — I genuinely think can’t be overstated.

There’s an experiment I think Daniel Pink refers to where you put two dogs in a box and the box has an electric floor. Every now and then an electric shock is applied to the floor, which pains the dogs. The only difference is one of the dogs has a small button in its half of the box. And when it nuzzles the button, the electric shock stops.

The other dog doesn’t have the button. It’s exposed to exactly the same level of pain as the dog in the first box, but it has no control over the circumstances. Generally the first dog can be relatively content. The second dog lapses into complete depression.

The circumstances of our lives may actually matter less to our happiness than the sense of control we feel over our lives. It’s an interesting question. We ask the question — the whole debate in the Western world is about the level of taxation.

But I think there’s another debate to be asked, which is the level of control we have over our tax money. That what costs us 10 pounds in one context can be a curse. What costs us 10 pounds in a different context we may actually welcome. You know, pay 20,000 pounds in tax towards health and you’re merely feeling a mug. Pay 20,000 pounds to endow a hospital ward and you’re called a philanthropist. I’m probably in the wrong country to talk about willingness to pay tax.

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So I’ll give you one in return. How you frame things really matters. Do you call it the bailout of Greece or the bailout of a load of stupid banks which lent to Greece? Because they are actually the same thing. What you call them actually affects how you react to them, viscerally and morally.

I think psychological value is great to be absolutely honest. One of my great friends, a professor called Nick Chater, who’s the Professor of Decision Sciences in London, believes that we should spend far less time looking into humanity’s hidden depths and spend much more time exploring the hidden shallows. I think that’s true actually. I think impressions have an insane effect on what we think and what we do. But what we don’t have is a really good model of human psychology. At least pre-Kahneman perhaps, we didn’t have a really good model of human psychology to put alongside models of engineering, of neoclassical economics.

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