Book Review – Unthinking by Harry Beckwith

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Unthinking: The Surprising Forces Behind What We Buy


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I recently finished up Unthinking – The Surprising Forces Behind What We Buy by Harry Beckwith. Beckwith attempts to use his 50 years as a marketer to explain the hidden biases and mental quirks that cause consumers to do what they do.

I’m not going to lie. I didn’t love the book. It seems to be absolutely all over the place. There were a lot of interesting facts, but it didn’t do much with them. Every few pages it seemed to jump from one topic to another, using constant anecdotal stories to justify it’s heading. It never seemed to pull those thoughts back together in a particularly useful way, except for a few pages in the final conclusion. I don’t know if I’ve ever read something that jumps around this much.

I’d say if your not in marketing or just have limited reading time, this one should go on the backburner. Luckily for you, I’ve taken notes and put them below. If you’ve read the book and have a different view or found my notes helpful, please let me know. (A lot of similar reviews over at GoodReads)

**My notes below are not comprehensive or meant to be super well written / organized. I literally take notes as I read and I later write them up. I do some basic editing, but that’s about it. It’s just a reflection of what I took from the book.


Some examples:

A poll of NBA players asked, who do you want taking last minute shot? They chose Kobe #1 and Chauncey Billups #2, when they were statistically the worst people you could choose from the list. Why?

Rules of Thumb – Kobe is a veteran that we’ve seen forever. He’s familiar. He’s famous. Humans are biased toward things that seem familiar.

We assume Kobe is better because he is paid more money.

We also assume attractive people are more intelligent, talented and emotionally sound. We assume they’re better than average at everything.

1. Childhoods

I. Love of Play

We’re programmed to play. Everything we do ends up being a game. Monet is the trophy, work is the game. Sex is a game.

Look at popular apps and programs. They are in bright primary colors, like toys.

II. Love of Surprise

We love surprises

“We crave surprises in all things – music, movies. We love joy and joy depends entirely on surprise. If we know something will happen, it barely pleases us. The moments that delight us – the experiences that we love – take us by surprise.”

We love riddles, rhymes, and themes.

Mental Model Note: Our brain works from anchors. Presenting something way off in one direction, makes other things look reasonable.

III. Love of Stories

  • We need stories. Every religion is built around stories and allegories.
  • We think in mental chunks. Facts don’t stick. Stories make facts into 1 thing we remember.
  • Great brands tell stories (think Nike)
  • We buy what things mean.

“A story is a single coherent whole that makes sense out of the parts.” We buy stories (wine, clothing brands, cars, etc)”

“We don’t buy thing; we buy what they mean, and a companies story provides meaning.”

IV. Little Vs. Big

From childhood we equate big with evil (Godzilla, Big Bad Woof, T-Rex, Jaws, Goliath). We identify with the little guy (the little engine who could, David, Frodo)

We love underdogs. This is why when major companies make acquisitions of smaller, cooler competitors, they frequently leave their names off the new subsidiary.

2. Our Culture

I. The Great Individualists

What do Howard Hughes and 50 Cent have in common? They tell us money is freedom.

“Buying things is only sometimes about owning things. Buying is often about being able to buy things. Having less means being told “No you can’t have that” and we loathe being told what we can and cannot do. Being able to buy is an expression of our deepest value: our freedom.” (Ex: Harley markets in freedom)

Mental Model Note: One of our cognitive biases is reactance – our tendency to resist not just orders but also suggestions, because we dislike giving up our freedom. (We love heist movies and frequently root for the bad guy)

American’s obsession with fairness

We pay for music when we don’t have to. We won’t buy from a store if we feel they’re taking advantage of us.

Our with to stand apart.

We love secret menus, finding new music first, and tattoos that are distinct to us. Customizing everything is in. Remember Krispy Kreme was something people sought out until they started being sold in gas stations. That was the beginning of the end.

II. The Great Togetherness

  • Researchers of phobias find that American’s fear nothing more than the thought of being alone. This can be seen as a theme through music and movies.
  • American’s are compassionate – # place for giving to charity and causes (Marshall Plan to restore Europe, Peace Corps).
  • American’s love following the wisdom of crowds (best seller lists)
  • Desire to be a part of something bigger (Harley Davidson created H.O.G – Harley Owners Group, Nike with running groups)

III. Lovers of the Familiar

  • We like the familiar and the average (we like songs the more we hear them)
  • The new gets old (we stop hearing sounds that repeat – living near ocean, sound of  fan)

IV. Eternal Optimists

  •  We’re a more religious country than most
  • Ricky Gervais noted our greater optimism in comparison to Brits when designing a US version of the office
  • We believe in happy endings, just check out basically all our movies
  • David Landes in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations concluded the salient trait of great nations was optimism.
  • Do we get this as a nation of immigrants who arrived with nothing but the clothes on our back and a dream?

3. Our Eyes

I. Our Need for Beauty

  • We’re in the age of the eye, and we notice the biggest flash.
  • We love good design (Ex – ancient hand axe is symmetrical)
  • We love beauty and equate it with virtue (Beauty and the Beast)

II. What is Beautiful to Us?

  • We love symmetry (we prefer symmetrical faces and things that are smooth)
  • We like curves (smiley faces, women’s bodies, top rated logos are round) and dislike edge (dangerous)
  • The new Beautiful is Simple (iphones)
  • Simple means Faster (and we’re impatient)
  • On average we spend 20 minutes to figure something out before quitting on it
  • Movie titles have gotten shorter and shorter over time

III. Our Eyes’ Sheer Force:

  • Why does Tiger Woods wear red? Red is a stimulating color and study after study shows red causes us to perform better. (Teams in red win more,
  • Black is the color of power (judges, graduations, professors)
  • Vitamin water stands out because of it’s color and simple packaging

4. Unthinking and the Road Ahead

II The Power of Expectations

  • We experience what we expect (expect pain = feel pain, memories alter to reflect what we think should have happened, people who look smart sound smarter to us)
  • Good example is the Pizza Hut commercial in which they served pizza hut Italian food at a high end restaurant and it got rave reviews.

The most interesting example of this in the book involved the famous Pepsi Challenge, in which people unequivocally preferred Pepsi, spurring the invention of New Coke, causing a disaster of epic proportion. Whey did it fail? There are no blind tests in real life.

They tested how people’s brains looked, by scanning someone drinking Pepsi / Coke without know what they were drinking, then did the same telling them which brand. Their brains lit up differently! That is fascinating. The brain centers that preferred the Pepsi were damped down when they knew it was Coke, and a brain center involved with our sense of self fired rapidly.

Mental Model Side Note: Expectation Theory (placebo effect) –  We see, taste, experience, and hear what we expect and this has real affect. We think we should feel better from from a pill, so we magically do. Many products and services have the effects they promise perhaps before we even use them.

IV. Our National Attention Deficit

“It’s not the Information Age, it’s the Inundation Age”. (I like that. I think there’s a lot of truth to that)

Ads largely have stopped working because people don’t notice and people don’t care.

In the age of the internet our attention sucks. We have too many things pulling too many directions and we’re alwyas trying to multi-task.

Here we talk about an experiment i still remember from Jr. High. We were told to watch a short video and count how many times a basketball was passed. In the video a person in a bear suit casually walks right across the entire screen, even pausing in the middle to wave. HALF OF PEOPLE DON”T SEE THE BEAR (myself included the first time). It’s amazing what focusing your attention in one direction will cause you to miss.


“During our decision making, the organ that processes our data sits on the sidelines while our feelings do the work. When our feelings reach their decision, they summon our brains to come in and draft the rationale, a task it does so well that it manages to convince us that its right – and that we were in charge the entire time.”

  • We love surprises.
  • We crave stories
  • We want to be a part of something…
  • Yet we want to stand out
  • We crave the familiar (just familiar enough)
  • We crave simple, fast and safe
  • What we love most is a unique and satisfying experience
  • We think with our eyes
  • We love beauty. Beautiful = good
  • We think smooth, round and symmetrical = Beautiful
  • Simple = Beautiful
  • Our Experiences are influenced by our Expectations
  • Of all forces, none surpass Reputation (for influencing expectations)
  • 5 Marketing Must Do’s: Conceiving Designing, Positioning, Naming, and Packaging

For more book reviews check out or Books Page.

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Comments 2

  1. George Young

    justify it’s heading

    Seriously, you don’t know that it’s = it is, and the possessive is its?

    Bone up on grammar!

    1. Post

      Hey George, I don’t have an editor. I write thousands of words weekly and I frequently do this after midnight after working a 10-12 hour job because it is something I care about. I’m well aware of the difference between it’s and its. You are a condescending asshole who adds nothing to the conversation.

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