The Socratic fish tray
5 min read

The Socratic fish tray

The Socratic fish tray

I have just recently landed in my new home, Turkey. So far, so hilly. And beautiful. And tasty.

We headed to the coast this week and last night we ate at a restaurant where I noticed some little behavioural hacking techniques used by the waiters.

I am more sensitive to these little tricks right now because I’m currently reading Rory Sutherland’s ‘Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas that Don’t Make Sense’.

From fake ‘door open’ buttons on elevators to explaining how a disgusting drink like Redbull can make someone rich enough to own an F1 team, the famous ad man from Ogilvy draws on a huge array of examples to demonstrate how we should better embrace illogical human reasoning over optimisation in many corners of life.

Now I’m going to explains some reflections I had on this, by way of a fish tray and Socrates… Bear with me.

Stomach hacking

We arrive at a restaurant in a little seaside town and we are given a warm greeting. We are asked if we are interested in fish. We say ‘maybe’ and quickly a big tray of fresh fish is presented, ready for grilling on their outdoor BBQ. We are asked if we would like to select one fish on the tray and on the spot we decide yes, indeed we would like one.

There are two things happening here.

The first is that we will feel more compelled to pick a fish because they have made the effort to bring it over. We would feel a bit bad beginning this relationship with a ‘no’.

Secondly, we are by the sea - for some reason we often feel like we should eat fish by the sea. The waiters know this. Plus the BBQ smells good, and we are hungry, so it feels logical to eat produce caught nearby (in fact it is usually cheaper to get seafood in the cities because that's where the big markets are).

They could have just told us they have the fish. They could have had it listed in the menu. They could have asked us to walk over and see a display. All of these methods would have been more efficient in terms of optimising their own labour. But they were optimising instead for our strange human quirks.

Bringing it over is a small act but I bet it sells a lot more fish than just displaying it on a menu.

And it didn’t stop there.

While our fish order was being written up another friendly waiter rolled past us with a huge fresh batch of baklava (a popular dessert in these parts) letting us know it exists. It looks freshly cut, all shiny and sugary.

Now, if he had shown us that at the end of our meal there’s a very high chance we would have said we are full. But we were hungry and eager little bees at the start and that sugary delight looked so appealing we all made a mental note to try it. Despite being stuffed at the end of our main course our brains had kept a pocket for cake.

It’s funny how one can eat 15kgs of food and feel like you are about to pop yet always find space for pudding.

Anyway, the food was great. Then the bill came - a bit higher than expected but that’s ok. But before we had time to both physically and mentally digest the meal, two final little hacks were served: free tea and then a huge plate of watermelon, also free.

People always like free things... The slight surprise of a slightly higher bill was quickly forgotten thanks to not one, but two free offers.

I came away feeling like this was good value while the restaurant on the other hand earned perhaps 20 per cent more on the bill. Both sides had a good evening.

Was what they did optimal in terms of speed of service and delivery? Not really.

They had around 30 tables to serve. The optimal way to serve would be by handing us a QR code and filling in a form online which would be sent to a waiter (this happened the night before in another restaurant and the experience was miserable). Or at the very least just taking orders from the menu as standard.

But by forgoing some optimisation in terms of service speed and table coverage, they made real financial gains.

Those actions were based on an innate understanding of human behaviour. If an economist ran the show it’s unlikely they’d suggest showing a fish tray to boost profits.

Negotiation, not persuasion

This success was in part due to these little psychological hacks. It wasn’t persuasion as such: it’s not that I wanted A and they pushed me into buying B.

I turned up wanting to eat, I just wasn’t entirely sure what. It was about negotiating into mutually beneficial territory (ripping me off could be an option but ultimately they want me to return I assume).

Negotiation is the key word here.

Chris Voss, former FBI negotiator, points out that negotiation is not about pushing someone into your point of view. It’s about finding common ground.

In the field of communications and marketing, I sometimes feel that it’s as if people are trying to trick people into finding something interesting and engaging rather than offering them a compelling, heart felt story and inviting them to connect with it.

Having a Korean boy band talk about agricultural reform in Greenland might get a lot of eyes on it, but honestly, what’s the point? (I made this up, I hope it hasn’t happened…).

Or trying to sell me a fridge when I've come to eat fish won't lead to success (but might land you a punch in the mouth, I get hangry).

Against persuasion

What I’m talking about here is the line between persuasion and negotiation. This point was beautifully discussed by Agnes Callard in the Boston Review. In it, she discusses the Socratic approach to conversation.

On the one hand, we are still trying to understand each other on a dizzying scale by probing each other as academics, scientists, friends, or on Twitter. We can still attempt to find clarity in people’s opinions by way of objection and clarification.

However Callard then argues, rightly in my humble opinion, that we have also shifted away from full Socratic reasoning. Today conversations are marked by “unilateral persuasion instead of collaborative enquiry”.

What’s generally playing out in American politics is a good example of this: it’s about one side trying to persuade another and offers little collaborative enquiry.

That’s where polarisation comes from.

“If, like Socrates, you view knowledge as an essentially collaborative project, you don’t go into the conversation expecting to persuade any more than you expect to be persuaded.” - Agnes Callard

The waiters in a sense entered into a debate with me. Yes they used some little hacks to nudge me in a certain direction, but they didn’t fool me and trick me. I was there to eat and eat I did.

It makes me think about how communicators and marketers focus on persuasion; persuading people to engage and become new followers and supporters. Are they really the people you need?

We need to focus less on persuasion and more on negotiation and, by default, a better understanding human psychology. The waiters certainly did.

Start with those who are the hungry customers, not the people wandering around outside. And then think about what can be done to maximise their experience to mutual benefit. Having them through the door and sat down is only part of the job.

Identifying new ideas and opportunities comes through Socratic enquiry. The waiters could only ever discover those tricks through careful listening and observation.

Small actions, small little behavioural insights with the right people, can make huge differences. Find your version of that fish tray.

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