Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Article excerpt

When I saw my first jogger in Wales in the early 1970s, I assumed he was running away from the police. Presumably joggers were familiar in California by then, but not elsewhere. I can't imagine any of the characters in Goodfellas going jogging, any more than I can imagine Rick in Casablanca going to a spinning class.

Nothing was stopping you from running around the streets back then. It was simply that there is always a high social cost to doing things most people don't do. Our brain's two most powerful default settings are social copying and acquired habit. Hence our preferences are not independent of our past behaviour, nor of that of others. We do not always choose our preferences: instead tastes, fashions and opinions ebb and flow through the population by a kind of contagion.

The same may be true of our adoption of new technology, and of new forms of consumption. If so, it would imply the limits to economic growth are as much imposed by consumers' psychological resistance to change as limits to investment or technological development. In Bill Gates's phrase: 'People don't know how to want the things we can offer them.'

This, certainly, is a theory advanced in Mario Fabbri's recent book The Imaginary Economy. In an echo of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he suggests there is a natural pace and rhythm limiting the speed at which humans can adopt new ideas, technologies and patterns of consumption. This would suggest that the best thing you can have in an economy is not highly innovative producers so much as confident, adventurous consumers. The US, being rich and highly individualistic, tends to lead the world in new forms of consumption: interestingly its growth rate is very stable. By contrast, developing countries may grow faster for a time, but largely by copying patterns of consumption already established in the US. …

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