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There is a natural human tendency for engineers to try to solve everything with engineering, for politicians to attempt to solve everything with legislation and for economists to try to solve everything with incentives. But are they making a fundamental error in seeing the world exclusively, as Dr Johnson put it, “Through the eyes of their own profession”?
This is not to say that marketers and advertising people do not make the same error – we certainly do. Everyone does. But the systemic biases we have to look out for are as follows:
1) Whoever gets to any problem first will, often unconsciously, define the problem in the language (and hence the assumptions) of their own speciality – something, incidentally, which is often true of medical specialists.
2) Those specialties which can define the problem numerically often enjoy an inbuilt advantage in defining the problem, since a mathematical model or a numerical expression of the problem, however contrived, enjoys a plausibility and an import which simple words cannot match.
3) When a course of action succeeds, success will often be attributed to the science practiced by the person who writes the case study.
Someone slightly guilty of the third sin is James Dyson. A brilliant engineer, he disparages marketing and attributes all the success of his products to their superior functionality and engineering. But a not insignificant reason for the popularity of his vacuum cleaners is not the fact that they are good, but the fact that they look good: design not engineering, in other words.
I would be so bold as to suggest that, had he clad his technology in opaque, discoloured plastic, he would not have sold many vacuum cleaners at all, and certainly not at the price they currently command.
Here’s an animated film which brings to life Rory Sutherland’s thoughts and observations.