Our man at Stanford part 8 – In which David Downs realises we are all sheep

At Stanford, we do cover serious topics (‘calculating weighted average cost of capital using long-run treasury bond rates’ anyone?), but the stuff that is really resonating with me is the social psychology. Basically the key takeaway here is that we are all sheep.

The Professor told me that in class and there was a tense moment where I thought the Australians in the room might take the whole kiwi/sheep thing in the wrong direction, but I shut them down with a Presidential glare.

The sheep analogy was another interesting story demonstrating how humans are not as ‘in control’ of our brains as we think… we are hard wired to want to be ‘normal’. Sure, we all think we are different, or that we want to be different, but time and again our behaviour betrays us – psychologists call this ‘normative behaviour’ and it shows up all over the place.

For example - at the end of a TV infomercial, if they have a final line that says ‘our operators are waiting for your call,’ then they won’t get many people calling. If they change this to ‘Please call back if operators are busy’, then they significantly increase the call rate. That’s because when we see the first one, we subconsciously say to ourselves ‘so, they aren’t very busy? People must not like them. Then neither do I.’ When we see the second title we think ‘Wow, everyone else likes this product, then I must too!’  But we don’t do it consciously, it’s all deeply ingrained and it probably explains why you have an Ab Cruncher under the bed in the spare room and a fine set of steak knives.

Here’s another story to demonstrate – apparently in the north of California there is a park with a Petrified Forest – as in, wood that is hardened by time, not a forest that is scared witless. They were having real issues where people were stealing million year-old petrified wood as souvenirs, so they put up a sign that said “Protected Area. Every year, thousands of people take wood from this forest. Please don’t steal the wood”. When they put that sign up, it was a disaster, they lost many, many times more wood, as people saw the behaviour as ‘normal’ – after all, thousands of people are doing it!  They consulted with a psychologist who got them to change the sign ever-so-slightly: “Protected Area. Every year, less than 2% of people take wood from this forest. Please don’t steal the wood”.  Both statements were true, but in the case of the second sign, it worked. No-one stole wood anymore – after all, who wants to be part of something only 2% of people do??



It’s been a busy week, with lots more kiwi connections in Silicon Valley. I met up with members of our NZTE team up here and found out about all the amazing work they have been doing with kiwi companies coming to the bay area; I had a ride in a Tesla with Craig Elliot and Nuwanthie Samarakone, who are promoting a fantastic programme to get kiwi graduates into internships in Silicon Valley over our summer/US winter (‘Winternz’ – surely the best name ever – two puns in one word!); I had dinner with Ben Anderson, kiwi expat and chair of NZTE’s North American Beachheads network; I caught up with a guy who’s just finished his MBA at Stanford and finally the CEO of a Kiwi company who is at Stanford this week on a short course. It’s fantastic to see these Kiwis and friends of New Zealand soaking up the Silicon Valley atmosphere.  All of them seem to have worked out how to get the best out of both NZ and US business culture. Makes me very positive about our future when I see the potential of Kiwi ingenuity and the American dream. Kia kaha!

Final thought - why are the American light switches the other way around? Up is on, down is off. Spooky; maybe it’s a Northern hemisphere thing, like the water going down the plughole the wrong way…