READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- Why you should never think of yourself as an expert
- How the most popular ideas blend the old with the new
- What a “risk portfolio” is, and how you can balance yours
Jonah Sachs is an author, speaker, and viral marketing trailblazer who has been named by Fast Company as one of today’s 50 most influential social innovators. Jonah Berger is an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and also the bestselling author of Contagious: How Things Catch On and Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior. The two recently sat down to talk about Sachs’ new book Unsafe Thinking, and why daring to defy conventional wisdom may be the smartest thing you can do.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click the link below.
Berger: What made you title the book Unsafe Thinking?
Sachs: I started a company when I was 24, and it was a social change communications company doing viral videos in 1999. It was a wild and crazy type of company where [there were] no rules. It was a very creative, very young company, and when we had a bunch of successes, I got asked to write a book about storytelling, because we were exploring the use of storytelling to create movements and social change. I started giving talks about storytelling, and went from being that explorer who was learning at all times to being that expert who had to have answers for every question, who was selling a process that many people wanted to buy.
But I suddenly realized that we were losing that creative edge completely, because we were trying to go through a set of processes that was meant to produce predictability, but was not producing any innovation. Everything that I thought was success—reaching certain levels of esteem, reaching certain levels of company size, being known in the world—were turning against me. But I was frozen and just didn’t want to move. What was happening was working, but I could tell the company was being torn apart internally.
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I started talking to people who had defied normal ways of doing things and defied conventional wisdom, or had built great companies where this [stasis] wasn’t happening. I learned that in every case, people had to go into that zone of discomfort and anxiety, and really push past some of the things that felt relevant and most-needed. They had to let go of some of their most cherished beliefs and ego structures, and that felt frightening for all of them.
Someone kept saying to me, “I was locked in this rut of safe thinking for many years,” and as soon as I heard that, “unsafe thinking” came to me in a flash. It’s not just about being wild and crazy—it’s about pushing yourself to the limits of what feels safe to you, and challenging yourself to think more holistically. That was the idea.
Berger: Why do you think people think these directions are unsafe? What feels unsafe to them, and what makes them shy away from it?
Sachs: There are so many pieces of why we move toward safe thinking. Under pressure, our brains are primed to act in stereotypical ways—to take an expedient route that has worked before, to fall back on the lessons of the past. All those “act quickly and get this problem solved” responses don’t really work when the world around you has fundamentally changed.
“Thinking of yourself as an expert is one of the best ways to get yourself into thinking traps.”
But then there are other things—thinking of yourself as an expert is one of the best ways to get yourself into thinking traps, but our expertise is often what makes us feel important in the world. Collaborating with people who share your moral views makes you less creative, yet it feels much more comfortable to deal with people who fit you culturally than people who push you. There are just so many standard operating procedures that make us feel safe and comfortable that slow us down from changing when the world is changing around us.
You’re teaching marketing in a quickly changing world where even people who are immersed in it every day have trouble keeping up. Do you find that to be a professor of marketing in today’s landscape is different than it might have been 20 years ago? How do you stay relevant?
Berger: I used to teach an elective, which was based on my own research. It was called “Contagious: How Products, Ideas, and Behaviors Catch On,” and a day or two of that course became my first book.
But then two or three years ago, they asked me to teach the introduction to marketing for everyone who’s never taken Marketing before. When they brought me in, they said, “You’re new, you’re different. How can we make this stuff more current and more relevant? How can we deal with the digital age and the way it’s transforming how people conduct business?”
It’s certainly been challenging, because on the one hand, old frameworks have lasted because they’re good. The longer something has been around, the more people have found it useful. But old things often become calcified. They become so stuck and so static that if you change the slightest thing, it breaks. That’s the challenge I find in bringing the new and the old together.
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Sachs: That makes a ton of sense. There was something in your book, Contagious, that stuck with me for many years and reminded me of one of the principles of unsafe thinking. You talk about how strong emotion is so important for something to catch on and go viral. Dismay or amusement are not nearly as good as disgust or hilarity, let’s say. You need to push people to the emotional extreme to get them to notice a product or an idea.
That’s the same principle of getting out there and pushing out to the edge, where it’s noticeable because it’s different. That kind of attention is so much more important than this mid-level emotion that doesn’t move anything.
“There are just so many standard operating procedures that make us feel safe and comfortable that slow us down from changing when the world is changing around us.”
Berger: Some brands or organizations find that controversy leads to a lot of discussion, and what is normal and everyday and average doesn’t get as much attention as the new, the different, the unusual.
There’s this notion of optimal distinctiveness, or similar and different at the same time, that I think is very valuable when we’re thinking about introducing new ideas, or trying to become more creative. Completely new things [aren’t accepted] because they’re so different, because they’re scary, because they’re risky. At the same time, if we only do exactly what we’re doing, there’s no movement, no innovation. In between is an ideal point, where it’s different enough to seem novel and have benefits, but also similar enough to feel familiar. We have this enjoyment of things that we’ve seen before, this warm glow of familiarity, so if we can mix the two together, it often makes novel, risky things seem less risky.
We’ve observed with baby names, for example, that names become popular that are similar to names that were popular [the previous] year. Not exactly the same name, not completely different—similar but different at the same time. I think that blending is one way to make unsafe things seem a bit safer.
Sachs: I think that also works in your personal life. I spoke to an inventor at Google X who said that when work gets really risky and on the edge, he sits at home, watches movies, and does things that are very familiar and comfortable. When work starts to get a little boring, he starts to get out, ride his motorcycle, and take chances in his personal life. It’s folly to always be the [person] who goes to the edge. You need to balance that risk portfolio.
Berger: People talk about optimal stimulation—I wonder if you could examine whether external factors that provide or don’t provide stimulation across the country or region affect workers in that area in a certain way. I imagine they do, right? Just like a big plant closing has effects on everyone’s personal lives, something that provides stimulation outside of work is going to affect their risk tolerance within the office. You can also imagine spouses and partners and friends wanting to know what’s going on at the office, so they have a better understanding of why you are or aren’t taking risks in your personal life.
Sachs: You often need a bunch of a good thing, but not too much of it. Regions of the country where there is a certain amount of churn and mixing and unfamiliar things being introduced—that leads people to be innovative. Places where people don’t have their basic needs met, or don’t know how to meet their basic needs because of the lack of opportunity or too much violent change—[people then] enter that cycle of high anxiety and arousal in which all we can do is try to survive.
“We have this enjoyment of things that we’ve seen before, this warm glow of familiarity, so if we can mix the two together, it often makes novel, risky things seem less risky.”
Lots of studies show that you want to have unfamiliar experiences, get out of your community, try things outside of your domain—but if you’re forced [to do that] all the time, you never settle in to reintegrate those experiences. Those experiences get lost into a mess of anxiety. There are many companies that are going for innovation and unsafety by taking all the shackles off and making it a free-for-all. But they’re ironically having the problem where people don’t feel safe enough to get unsafe.
[When it comes to ideas spreading,] are we entering a world where algorithms will try 10,000 things, and it’ll just decide for us what’s contagious?
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Berger: Why have a theory? Why not just run a whole bunch of experiments? [Let’s say] you’re on a hill, and it’s [taller] than anywhere around you. But is there a taller mountain that you can’t see? I think AB testing is really good for picking points and saying, “How well do these two points do relative to one another?” But it doesn’t tell you how it would be [if you did something completely different]. You could do a gazillion AB tests, which would be very expensive and time consuming, to cover all [areas], but that’s pretty impossible.
I think what theory is good for is to give you a sense of, “We’re looking for gold… Where should we dig? This island, or this other island? Should we pan in this river, or this other river?” AB testing might tell us, “Let’s move up that river a little bit, or down that river a little bit.” Theory is going to help us locate where to start. I think there’s a place for both.
Sachs: [To wrap up,] I think this idea of real cognitive diversity hasn’t yet penetrated hiring practices the way that it needs to. If the science is to be believed, random teams of diverse people outperform handpicked teams of experts who have the same experiences. That’s been eye-opening for me.
I see people nod when I talk about it, but not a lot of people who are really ready to take that leap and create with people that they think of as the enemy. Especially in a time of so much political bifurcation, it’s just more important than ever that we get face-to-face with people who think differently, who see the world differently than us, and to remember our common humanity and ability to find solutions together.