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Book review: ‘Unthinking: The Surprising Forces Behind What We Buy’

You can’t survive without them, but there are times when your clients just make you shake your head.

One wants “new.” You show them “new” and they pick the same old thing. Another aspires to a serious reputation, but you know the CEO is a wild man. And if changing their minds were an Olympic sport, they’d all have a dozen gold medals.

Wouldn’t you love to know what makes your customers and, come to think of it, employees tick? Read the new book “Unthinking” (Business Plus / Grand Central Publishing, $24.99) by Harry Beckworth, and you might get an idea.

Do you really know what you know?

Beckworth thinks not. People, he says, tend to choose shortcuts and things that are familiar, which means that what we “know” may not be true. We tend to rely on common knowledge, not statistics, and feelings often trump the truth.

There are, says Beckworth, three things that drive those feelings: our childhoods (play), our culture (optimism) and our eyes (beauty).

If you’ve ever watched animals, you know how they love to play, and humans are animals. Our music reflects play, as do movies and commercials and even our language: We “won” a new account or “scored” a great bargain. Playfully, our brains are wired to love surprises and hate things that are “big” or too familiar.

But there are conundrums: we also love the familiar. We crave individuality and we love feeling like we’re members of an exclusive club, but we happily leap aboard the loudest bandwagon.

We’ll willingly walk two blocks to save $30 on a $70 watch, but we won’t take the effort to save $30 on a $700 stereo. Overall, we argue and squabble, but we always know that, fiddledeedee, tomorrow’s another day.

Most of all, though, we are visual creatures who love colors and graphs and pictures.  Even as infants, we can spot beauty and appreciate it. And we love marketing that is short, concise and to the point.

Says Beckworth: “We love easy.”

But I didn’t love this book so much at the beginning.

Taking his own advice to “tell stories” because we relish them, Beckworth does exactly that over the course of nearly this entire almost-300-page book. Just about every point he makes is illustrated with a story, and that’s not a bad thing, unless you’re a busy businessperson who only needs the facts. The stories, while entertaining, seemed to be too subtle for time-starved readers.

But take another look, and you’ll see an outlier’s kind of book filled with examples and insights on American behavior and habits. Read past the how-will-this-help-me feeling, and you’ll start to see yourself and your clients. You’ll begin to understand why your advertising is or isn’t working. Things begin to make sense, if you can stick with this book.

So the core advice is: Don’t read it unless you’ve got time to absorb its subtleties. Put it aside and wait for another day. If you can do that, you may find that “Unthinking” helps you get a fair shake in business.

The Bookworm, Terri Schlichenmeyer, is a Wisconsin-based book reviewer.

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