The mind of the alchemist understands that the smallest change in context or meaning can have immense effects on behavior.”  

– Rory Sutherland, Author 


Book Data

Publication Date: May 7, 2019

Print Length: 387 pages 

Best Sellers Rank:

#11 in Market Research Business (Amazon Books) 

 #31 in Consumer Behavior (Amazon)  

 #101 in Business Decision Making (Amazon Books)  

The Topic

In “Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life,” Rory Sutherland argues that logic and data aren’t always the best guides for decision-making. Through a mix of psychology, behavioral economics, and wit, Sutherland advocates for the power of unconventional thinking to solve problems and create value.

The book explores the irrational, unconventional, and often counter-intuitive aspects of decision-making in business, marketing, and everyday life. Sutherland challenges the conventional wisdom that decisions should be purely data-driven and logical.

Instead, he makes the case for the role of psychology, human behavior, and creative thinking in solving problems and finding success. Sutherland argues that understanding the less rational aspects of human behavior can lead to “alchemy,” or the magical transformation of problems into opportunities and value.

The Ideal Reader

Rory Sutherland wrote “Alchemy” primarily for professionals in the fields of marketing, advertising, business, and organizational leadership. However, the book also appeals to a broader audience interested in psychology, behavioral economics, and decision-making. It is designed to provide actionable insights for those looking to understand the less rational aspects of human behavior and to leverage this understanding for problem-solving, product design, and brand building.

For anyone interested in the complexities of human choices and how they can be influenced or harnessed, “Alchemy” offers a treasure trove of insights.

Marketing Professionals: Those in marketing can benefit from the book’s insights into consumer behavior, especially the irrational elements that traditional marketing models often overlook. Understanding these can lead to more effective and creative marketing strategies.

Business Leaders: CEOs and other organizational leaders will find value in the book’s unconventional wisdom, which can help in problem-solving, strategy development, and fostering a culture of innovation.

Behavioral Economists: Those studying or working in behavioral economics can gain from the real-world applications of theories related to human decision-making.

Product Designers: Understanding the less-than-logical aspects of consumer preference can help designers create products that not only meet functional needs but also satisfy deeper, often unarticulated desires.

Startup Founders: Entrepreneurs often have to make decisions based on incomplete information and gut instinct. “Alchemy” provides a framework for making such decisions in a more informed manner.

Advertising Executives: Since the book explores how unconventional thinking can create compelling narratives and campaigns, advertising professionals can find it useful for their work.

General Public: Anyone interested in psychology, decision-making, or the nuances of human behavior would find “Alchemy” a page turning read. It’s written in an accessible way that doesn’t require specialized knowledge.

Academics and Students: Those in academic fields related to business, psychology, and economics might find the book useful for its practical applications of theoretical concepts.

The Promise

Rory Sutherland’s implicit promise to the readers of “Alchemy” is to offer a new lens through which to view problems, opportunities, and decision-making, both in business and in everyday life.

Through a combination of psychology, behavioral economics, and real-world examples, Sutherland aims to show that going against conventional, data-driven wisdom can often lead to more innovative and effective solutions. In essence, the author promises to equip the reader with the tools to create their own “alchemy” by embracing the power of unconventional thinking.

The Title

The title “Alchemy” immediately evokes a sense of magic, transformation, and the turning of base elements into something valuable—much like the historical goal of alchemists to turn lead into gold. This captures the book’s central theme of achieving extraordinary outcomes through unconventional thinking.

The subtitle, “The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life,” expands on this by indicating that the book is a blend of art and science. It adds specificity by mentioning the contexts where this ‘alchemy’ can be applied: brands, business, and life in general.

Together, the title and subtitle create an intriguing juxtaposition between the mystical (“Alchemy,” “Dark Art,” “Magic”) and the rational (“Curious Science,” “Brands,” “Business”). This mirrors the book’s content, which argues for the value of blending rational, data-driven approaches with more intuitive, creative thinking.

By combining elements of mystery, transformation, and practical application, the title and subtitle effectively encapsulate the book’s promise to offer a unique perspective on problem-solving and decision-making. It intrigues both the logically-minded and those interested in the unquantifiable aspects of human behavior, attracting a wide range of readers.

The Methodology

In “Alchemy,” Rory Sutherland doesn’t necessarily present a strict, formal methodology for achieving the “magic” he discusses. Instead, the book is more of an exploration of various psychological principles, behavioral economics theories, and real-world examples to advocate for unconventional thinking in problem-solving and decision-making. The approach is multidisciplinary, drawing from various fields of study to make its case.

Sutherland relies on case studies, historical events, and personal anecdotes to illustrate his points. He demonstrates how traditional, rational methods of understanding problems or opportunities—often reliant on quantitative data and established best practices—can be limiting. He advocates for the inclusion of more subjective, psychological factors into decision-making processes, even if these factors appear irrational or counter-intuitive at first glance.

So, while there isn’t a step-by-step methodology outlined, the book does offer a conceptual framework for thinking differently about problems and opportunities in business and life. It encourages readers to question established norms and to be open to insights from a range of disciplines, emphasizing that ‘alchemy’ often occurs at the intersection of diverse fields and perspectives.

The Book's Structure


Overview of the central theme: the need for unconventional thinking in business and everyday life.

Part 1: On The Uses and Abuses of Reason

Fifteen sections that demonstrate the shortcomings of purely logical, data-driven approaches to problem-solving and decision-making.

Part 2: An Alchemist’s Tale (Or Why Magic Really Still Exists) 

Eight sections exploring the behavioral economics and psychology principles that influence how people make choices.

Part 3: Signaling

Twelve sections on the role of signaling or the ways in which people (or companies) communicate or signal their intentions, qualities, or values to others often without directly stating them. For instance, when a person purchases a luxury item, they might not only be buying it for its functionality but also to signal their status or wealth to others.

Part 4: Subconscious Hacking: Signalling to Ourselves 

Ten sections examining how humans use the placebo effect and different irrational mind hacking techniques for both mental and physical health, and how marketers tap into this phenomenon. 

Part 5: Satisficing

Six sections on the concept of “satisficing,” a term that merges “satisfy” with “suffice.” The idea behind satisficing is that people often make decisions that are “good enough” rather than optimal. Instead of exhaustively searching for the absolute best option (which can be time-consuming and mentally taxing), individuals frequently opt for solutions that meet their minimum requirements or are satisfactory for their needs. 

Part 6: Psychophysics

Fourteen sections on psychophysics, which is the study of how the neurobiology of perception various among different species, and how what we see, hear, taste and feel differs from ‘objective’ reality. 

Part 7: How to Be an Alchemist

Nine sections with seven lessons on how to apply the concepts for marketers and life. 


Recap of big insights and final thoughts from the author.  

What Made Alchemy a Best Seller?

Expertise of the Author: Rory Sutherland is a prominent figure in advertising and behavioral science. His authority on the subject lends credibility to the book.

Timeliness: The book captures the zeitgeist of a period where data-driven decisions are becoming increasingly prevalent, offering a fresh perspective on why irrationality should also be considered.

Broad Appeal: While the book is especially relevant for professionals in marketing, advertising, and business leadership, its exploration of human behavior and psychology has a broader appeal.

Actionable Insights: The book provides practical advice and real-world examples, making it not just a theoretical work but a guide for applying unconventional wisdom.

Engaging Writing Style: Sutherland’s wit and engaging writing make complex topics accessible, making the book a compelling read.

Media Coverage and Reviews: Favorable reviews from reputable sources and media coverage amplified the book’s visibility and credibility.

Recommendations and Endorsements: Positive endorsements from notable figures in relevant industries added further authority and drew in a larger readership.

Word of Mouth: Satisfied readers are likely to recommend the book, and word-of-mouth recommendations significantly contributed to its popularity.

Versatility: The book’s blend of psychology, economics, and business insights also makes it a popular choice for academic courses and professional training programs, expanding its reach.

Global Relevance: The principles discussed have universal applicability, making it popular not just in one geographic location but globally.

Presentation and Packaging: A compelling title and cover design also contribute to its marketability and shelf appeal.

Each of these factors contributed to creating a buzz around the book, helping it to achieve bestseller status.

Write the Right Book Series

The “Write the Right Book” breakdown series shows you how the best selling business books you love follow the five foundationas of writing a must read book. Think of your book as a house. The strength of your home is in its foundation. Nail down a crystal-clear topic, know your ideal reader like they’re your best friend, give them a promise they can’t resist, and choose a title and subtitle that will grab their attention from across a crowded room. And don’t forget the blueprint—your structure. When you invest your time in getting clarity on these five  elements first, not only will writing your book be a lot easier and enjoyable, but you’ll also end up with a read that’s a genuine page-turner. 

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