What the dog saw – Malcolm Gladwell

what-the-dog-saw-Malcolm-GladwellWhen my cuz mentioned about this Gladwell book, my first reaction was why the funny title. It seems the title is inspired from Gladwell’s efforts to get inside the other party’s head. He talks about the ‘Dog Whisperer’ the guy with the magical effect on unruly dogs, and wonders how it would be to decode the magic by understanding what the dog saw in the ‘Dog Whisperer’.

The book is actually a collection of stories Malcolm wrote when he was a staff writer at The New Yorker. Each one is backed by powerful research and has powerful stories that make for a very interesting case-study.

Some of the interesting lessons I found in this amazing book:

  • While pitching remember who is the star. When a celebrity endorses a product, the star in that commercial or pitch is the celebrity. The Pitchman who made a million dollars in an hour selling a kitchen appliance on TV, made sure that the product was the star. Always.
  • Study who is using your product and how. Kids do not control what they get to eat. Hence they cherish Ketchup with most meals, because it helps them control some bit of what they eat. Heinz noted how kids reached out to Ketchup bottle more often than adults . One of their senior team was out studying consumer behavior and noted how the kid was told not to handle the bottle on her own. Heinz noted this and ensured that their bottle became the kid-friendly EZ Squirt bottle.
  • We have a strange way of processing probability. In a chapter around Nassim Taleb and his counter-intuitive trading strategy, Gladwell talks about a small social experiment done. A set of individuals were given two options – A: Get $100 or B: Throw a coin & if you win get $200. Most opted for option A. When the experiment was reversed, surprising results came in. Now people were told that they could choose from C: Pay $100 or throw a coin and pay $200. Most people now wanted to test their luck and take a chance at losing their money.
  • To sell pain killers, you need to understand the person in pain and not just the pain. A classic example given talks about how a company found that its pill was being used both by people suffering from head-aches and stomach-aches. It took an advertising firm to discover that the consumer was in completely different mindsets. A person suffering from stomach-ache tends to blame himself for overeating etc and hence considers himself to be the culprit. A head-ache patient on the other hand is more in the victim mindset. Even if the same tablet can help both, you need to understand what to say to them in each scenario.
  • Puzzles vs Mysteries. Malcolm talks about how we currently live in a more open world where there is an explosion of data and information. In most instances these days, it is not a challenge to get more information, but to figure out patterns and make sense of the maze of data. The former is referred to as a puzzle and the latter scenario as a Mystery. While this was written way back in 2007, I think Gladwell was talking about Big Data as we know it today.
  • Bell Curves are misleading. While I agree 100% with the abusive nature of Bell Curves in the corporate set-up, Malcom brings up a more relevant aspect of it in policy making. It seems that most social challenges have few outliers who take up most of the cost of the program e.g. few polluting cars if removed can bring down the pollution significantly. Hence the approach should not be to manage all cars and check them, but find the polluting ones (in a smart way) and addressing them. I think the key point he makes is that with a bell curve we assume that each car is contributing in some way to the problem, where as the problem is limited to just a small subset of population on the extreme end of the graph. So no point making a policy for the whole distribution.

Its a great read with stories on the how the Birth-Control Pill evolved, how fight against Breast Cancer is a study in human evolution. You can buy it on Flipkart here