Thursday, February 18, 2010

book review: the culture code

I recently finished reading The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do and I'm not entirely sure how to react. It was either...

  • an insightful look at our unconscious motivations and how they vary across different cultures
  • a self-promoting collection of hearsay and cultural prejudices by a psychologist turned business consultant

the good

The main insight of this book is to replace focus groups with something stranger, but seemingly more effective. Focus groups ask people what they want from a product, but this doesn't work because people often don't actually know (or say) what they want. This replacement for focus groups is a 3-hour session broken into the following parts:

  1. facilitator acts like an alien from another planet and asks participants to describe the product
  2. participants sit on floor and cut up magazines to make a collage about the product
  3. everyone lies down on the floor with pillows (yeah...pillows) and gets very relaxed, then they tell their very earliest memory of the product

This sounds crazy, but when you are trying to understand unconscious motivation you need to take some roundabout methods to get the real motivations out of people heads.

After these sessions the facilitator takes all the data collected from the participants and tries to boil it down into a single idea, called the Code. So, after having sessions like the one described above, Dr. Clotaire Rapaelle decided that the Code for the Jeep Wrangler (for Americans) is HORSE. Using this idea was the motivation for making the headlights round, keeping the rough leather interior, and for letting people easily remove the tops of the Jeep so they could feel the wind in their hair. According to the book, realizing and embracing the Code for the Jeep is what made it stand out and be successful, instead of being just another SUV. (By the way, be prepared to see "the Code" several times on every page of the book, and on every other sentence of this review.)

Where this gets really interesting is in the application of this technique to find how the Codes are different across cultural boundaries. For example: in several European countries, the Code for the Jeep was LIBERATOR because of the memories of American soldiers riding by in Jeeps during the post WWII era. And when you begin to compare the Codes for things like: food, love, and money...that's where the gold is. Not only is it eye-opening to see how different cultures feel about these topics, it is just as revealing to be reminded that our personal beliefs are heavily influenced by the culture that we are raised in. I wish that more of the book had been devoted to exploring these cross-cultural differences.

Another gem in the book is the description of how people unconsciously create very reasonable-sounding explanations to justify the unreasonable decisions that they make. The general consensus in cognitive neuroscience is that most of our decisions are made unconsciously (or non-consciously...depending on who you talk to), in other words: rarely do we make rational decisions. Not only that, there is evidence to suggest that the unconscious decision making is actually better. But in the end, our prefrontal cortex (that pesky rational part) needs to have a story to explain our decisions, even if it wasn't involved in making them.

the bad

The decision to stuff the Code into a single word starts to seem a little silly as the topics get larger. The peak of silliness is reached when he says that the Code for "home" is "RE-". That's right...the Code for "home" is words that start with "re." At this point, why not just say the Code is X, Y, and Z (in this case: Reconnect, reunite, return, renew and reconfirm). It seems like he became a victim of his own system with this one. I would preferred to see the Code broken down into the most popular concepts with some sort of percentage or ratio applied. For example: the Code for JEEP could have been HORSE (80%) MODEL-T (20%). However, it seems like the Code is meant for easy consumption in a business environment, and that target audience may also forgive his sloppy use of phrases like "reptilian brain."

The other small annoyance is the cherry picking of evidence to support the Codes. After he reveals each code, he starts naming cultural or historical events that validate the Code that he chose. It seems odd that someone so familiar with the psychological influence of the unconscious would fall prey to such obvious Selection Bias.

the ugly

Earlier I mentioned something about how this book could be considered to be full of "cultural prejudices" and "self-promoting" -- I'll let the following two passages make those points. The first is when Dr. Clotaire Rapaille talks about his immigration to America, and the second is from the Acknowledgments section.

The French who were lazy and lacked imagination stayed in Europe. The ones with guts and determination came here. These people found "home" by moving elsewhere. Their homeland was an accident of birth; they found a permanent place to live when they left it to come to America.
All this work could not have been accomplished without the internal support and encouragement I got from many of today's CEOs, presidents, and chairmen of major corporations. Special thanks go to...(insert name dropping here)...Against all odds and despite the traditional thinkers on their teams, they trusted me. Together we have done remarkable work in breaking the Culture Code.

in conclusion

Despite my complaints, it was an interesting book that is well worth reading. It's short enough that you could almost read it in a single sitting, and it is an approachable book (almost too simple at times) that makes its point well. By the end of the book, you may start skipping some of the participant comments, but they are a nice way of reaffirming the idea that the Code came from actual data and they weren't totally plucked our of the air.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

book review: the pig that wants to be eaten

The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher

Billed as: a hundred philosophical puzzles for the "Armchair Philosopher" -- this is a fun read, but it doesn't have a lot of depth. There is nothing in here that you wouldn't find in a Philosophy 101 course (or SciFi movie), but the short chapters make it a good bathroom companion.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

book review: i am a strange loop

I Am a Strange Loop

No review of a book by Douglas R. Hofstadter can fail to mention Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid -- sometimes referred to as GEB -- his Pulitzer prize winning 1979 masterpiece. GEB is a book that should be required reading in schools; a brilliant tapestry of ideas from music, math and art that swirl around the mystery of the thing that we call the mind. If you haven't read GEB, get it now, it is a fantastic book.

The curse of having written something like GEB is that everything else that comes after has to fall in its shadow, and this is certainly true of I am a Strange Loop. This book explored the same mystery that Hofstadter examined in GEB (and in much of his life), but this time much more directly and personally. While his prior work playfully danced around the question of consciousness, this book takes a more deliberate approach. He still leverages his gift for analogy, but it lacks some of the creativity and depth from his early work.

In this book, Hofstadter talks about losing his wife to cancer and how he tried to understand and cope with the loss. In the context of those experiences, it is hard to not be moved when he argues that a person's mind can (to some extent) live on after death in the brains of the people that knew them.


This book doesn't have the invigorating playfulness of GEB, but it is a very approachable (and very personal) treatise from an expert trying to explain how that three pound tangle of neurons could be the home of that wonderful mystery that we call self. If you've already read GEB, and loved it, this one is probably worth reading too.

book review: flow

In an effort to encourage myself to read more this year, I'm going to be writing up some short reviews of the books I finish. Here is the first of what I hope will be many...

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

The basic premise of this book is that there is a state of optimal experience that is all-consuming, where your surroundings and your sense of time seem to disappear. This state, called flow, is achieved by having a series of tasks that are slightly beyond your current abilities -- they can come in many forms: work, puzzles, social interactions, sports, hobbies, games, etc.

If the task is too easy it will be boring, but if it is too difficult it will be frustrating. So the key to achieving flow is to make sure that the level of complexity is just above your current abilities. Finding that "sweet spot" can be a challenge, but since the difficulty of the task needs to be harder relative to your current skills, experiencing flow is possible whether you are a novice or an expert.


Despite being a relatively short book, it felt a little long-winded and meandering at times. Regardless, the idea is compelling, and it resonated experiences that I have had where an activity was so engrossing that I lost track of time. In my opinion, this book is worth reading.