The laws of physics are a conceptual analogy for fundamentals of nature that you cannot get around, even though the laws as we know them are man-made. It is intriguing that some of the laws of physics can be extended, by analogy, to other fields like marketing, psychology and psychotherapy.
Oxford physics graduate, Dan Cobley, now a marketing director at Google, returned to Oxford in July, where he gave a talk at TED linking some of the laws of physics with principles of marketing.
Marketing and psychology are closely linked in that they are both, in some sense, the study of human nature and behaviour. The difference is that if you get things wrong in marketing, the market punishes you, while if you get things right, the market rewards you. In psychology, by contrast, if you get things wrong your PhD is awarded or your book is published anyway, and getting things right is of little advantage.
As a result, you can be pretty sure that a successful marketing director knows a thing or two about the way things are, while a successful psychologist might only be good at impressing other psychologists.
Psychotherapy lies somewhere in between. Some psychotherapists base their careers on impressing other psychotherapists or bureaucrats, while other psychotherapists are in private practice, rewarded or punished by the market depending on whether they deliver results in the real world.
Newtons’s second law
Sir Isaac Newton described three laws of motion in his Principia (‘Principles’), published in 1687. The second of the laws is that when you want to make something move (make it accelerate), the amount of force you need to apply depends on how massive the thing is. The more massive it is, the more force you need.
In marketing, by analogy, this also applies to brands. For example, when Hoover diversified from vacuum cleaners to other products, they found it difficult to move the public’s perception of the Hoover brand, because it had become such a massive brand in vacuum cleaners.
In psychotherapy the analogy applies too. To treat a massive problem, you need to apply a lot of force in treatment. To treat a lightweight problem, you only need to apply a small amount of force.
That is why I tell people to beware courses of psychotherapy that contain fixed numbers of sessions and standard treatment protocols. The bureaucrats and academics who design these inflexible therapies are ignoring the wide variation in mental illness.
For example, I recently heard about an NHS facility where the standard treatment for all mental disorders is four sessions of CBT. There is no filter to ensure that only the very simplest cases are referred to this facility. Every patient gets four sessions.
Other treatment protocols arbitrarily choose six, eight or twelve sessions. Psychiatrists seem to like recommending twenty sessions. In none of these cases is there any good assessment of how massive the patient’s problem is.
Successful psychotherapists in private practice vary the number of sessions according the each individual patient’s needs. If the patient’s mental state starts to move after only one session, then perhaps only one more session will be needed. But if it turns out that the patient has layer upon layer of difficulties, then many sessions will be needed to work through them all.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle
Werner Heisenberg described his uncertainly principle in the Zeitschrift für Physik (‘Journal of Physics’) in 1927. This principle, in quantum physics, is that very accurate measurements of subatomic particles are subject to a fundamental limitation, because the particles have an inherent probabilistic nature. If you measure one property of a particle very accurately, then another of its properties becomes less certain.
The uncertainty principle can be interpreted as an effect of measurement. When you measure one property of a particle, the act of making the measurement changes the particle, causing uncertainty about another of its properties. By analogy, Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle in quantum physics can be generalized to other situations where an act of measuring or observing changes the thing that is being measured or observed.
In marketing, the act of observing consumers changes their behaviour. For example, focus groups and surveys are unreliable because people who know they are being observed think differently about themselves and behave differently. To counter this, marketing is more and more based on actual behaviour, instead of on indirect measurements like surveys.
In psychotherapy, academics and bureaucrats cling to an infatuation with questionnaires as almost the sole method of measurement. Even structured observation (the equivalent of the marketing focus group) is quite rare.
Successful psychotherapists in private practice use specific behavioural experiments to determine what actually happens when an individual patient interacts with the real world. At the same time, they never lose sight of the fact that the experiment itself will change the patient’s thinking and behaviour.
Not limited to physics, the philosophical basis of all science was best described by Sir Karl Popper in his 1934 book, Logik der Forschung (‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’). Scientific method is based on reasoning, on what makes sense, not on observed data. The relationship between reason and data is that some things that seem reasonable might be shown to be false by the observed data. However, observed data cannot logically prove anything.
Of all the ideas in the TED talk, this is the most difficult one for non-scientists to grasp — even more difficult, surprisingly, than the quantum mechanics of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. When you see a rainbow touch the ground just behind a certain tree, the observed data ‘proves’ in such a compelling way that the rainbow does indeed touch the ground, that many people cannot let go of the notion that observed data proves things.
Science demands rational explanations that are independent of proof, however. The true importance of observed data in science is to expose flaws in those rational explanations — to disprove things. It only takes one contrary observation to disprove a theory. Constant exposure of flaws in their theories forces scientists to make progress by coming up with better and better rational explanations.
In marketing, by analogy, BP tried to prove that they were an environmentally friendly company by providing consumers with more and more data over many years. It only took one contrary observation this year to show that the theory they were promoting was false. (Although a rational person’s view of any oil company would not have been influenced by all that environmental data in the first place.)
In psychotherapy, the academics constantly chase rainbows, and the bureaucrats run around after them. The notion that observations prove things is rife. Almost no research projects have any rational basis — they almost all attempt to use observed data to prove things, and the irrational chaos that results when different observations seem to prove different things is simply ignored.
Successful psychotherapists, on the other hand, apply scientific method. They work with rational models of their patient’s difficulties. They form hypotheses, and they eliminate them by observation and experiment, until patient and therapist have a shared rational understanding of what is wrong.
Entropy is a generalization of a law of thermodynamics, originally the study of heat. The second law was originally described by Sadi Carnot in 1824, in Réflexions sur la Puissance Motrice du Feu (‘Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire’).
The second law is based on the observation that heat always flows from hotter places to colder places. However, things are more complicated than that — otherwise, for example, it would be impossible to make a refrigerator.
In its most general form, the second law states that the universe as a whole always tends to become more disordered. Entropy is a measure of disorder, and so entropy always tends to increase overall. However, by putting energy into a system that has boundaries, you can decrease entropy locally by increasing it somewhere else, and create order in the system.
In marketing, brand image tends to become more disordered the more comsumers interact with the brand. For example, the Conservative Party used an airbrushed photograph of David Cameron in its poster campaign for the election this year, but the campaign became disordered when the image was widely lampooned on the Internet. It is not clear that this was a bad thing, though. It meant that the poster received far more attention than it otherwise would have.
Some psychotherapists foolishly try to create permanent order — contentment that will last forever. But living systems work by constantly expending energy to create localized order, which constantly decays into chaos at the same time. Life is a dynamic and shifting equilibrium, not a steady state.
Successful psychotherapists understand the dynamic. They do not try to create a certain state of mind and say, “Hold it right there!” They try to create or release the capability to rediscover desired states of mind continuously by putting energy into life.
Analogy is fundamental to reasoning and communication, and therefore fundamental to science. It seems strange that physics, marketing and psychotherapy have so much in common, until you look at them all as ways to make sense of the world and ourselves.
Here is the TED talk: