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Rashi Goel

Fredkin’s paradox, boiling water parables and how half knowledge is poison

Fredkin's paradox, boiling water parables and how half knowledge is poison
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Choices. This or That?

Fredkin’s Paradox states “The more equally attractive two alternatives seem, the harder it can be to choose between them.”

In an experiment at Yale, users were given a choice to buy chewing gum or keep the money. They had to choose between two packs, both priced at 63 cents. Only 46% made a purchase. When the packs were priced differently— 62 cents and 64 cents—more than 77% made a purchase.

completing a purchase

The conclusion is that when faced with choices with similar attributes, consumers are likely to defer their purchase.

Implication for marketers: If we are ‘taking inspiration’ from competition and mirroring their offer, we may be paralyzing the consumer into not picking either of the two brands!

Implication for us as managers – we may be spending more time than necessary, on the least important decisions, because they are similar.

Boiling Water Parables

There are a few motivational parables about boiling water. I thought I would come up with one of my own. But first, here are the two most common parables.

PARABLE 1. Put a frog in a pot of water. Raise the temperature gradually. The frog’s body will adjust to the warming water and it will slowly boil to death. 

The moral of the story – don’t be like the frog who misses gradual changes in context and perishes. 

What gradual changes around us are we missing?

PARABLE 2. An egg, a carrot, and coffee were put into boiling water. 
The carrot goes in hard and rigid, comes out soft and mushy, all the fight goes out of it.
The egg goes in vulnerable, with a fragile shell, and comes out hard, and brittle. 
The coffee mixes perfectly into the water, one can’t tell what is coffee and what is water. 

The moral of the story – be like coffee. Embrace adversity.

Which situations bring out the carrot or egg within us and how would a situation change if we embraced it like coffee? 

[Warning, cheesy parable coming up!]

PARABLE 3. Boiling water was thrown over coffee and it was whisked to within an inch of its life. Coffee brought a friend, sugar. Made silky smooth Dalgona.

Moral of the Story – Make Dalgona. Sometimes life doesn’t just throw boiling water on us, it whips us into a frenzy, knocks us around, and manhandles the energy out of us.  When life gets tough beyond measure, rise to the occasion.  Use the force of the whipping itself to create something beautiful.  Oh yes, and get help from a  friend. 

What difficult situation are you facing right now that you could transform? Which friend can you lean on for support?

Half knowledge is poison

It is said that Henry Ford invited Nikola Tesla to solve a problem in the factory. Tesla walked up to a wall of boilerplate and made a small X in chalk on one of the plates. Ford, thrilled, asked him to send an invoice. The invoice arrived – $10,000. Ford balked and asked for a breakdown. Tesla sent the breakdown – $1 for marking the wall with an X, and $9,999 for knowing where.

We tend to value actions more than we value knowledge.

I am sure we all have days when we realize it’s already 6 PM and we wonder what we have even achieved. This frantic busyness of actions we find ourselves in comes from half knowledge. Half knowledge that doing a lot, saying a lot, and living in a constant state of panic, is what work is all about.

Half knowledge is when we don’t realize that we are chasing probabilistic success instead of deterministic success. Probabilistic success means that we try many many things, by virtue of chance or probability, a few work. Deterministic success is a result of a compounding of strategic efforts over time.  

A Sanskrit shloka (verse) builds on this idea and says that even good things done halfway, become poison.


अनभ्यासे विषं विद्या अजीर्णे भोजनं विषम् ।
विषं सभा दरिद्रस्य वृद्धस्य तरुणी विषम् ॥
when not practiced, knowledge is poison; in indigestion, food is poison
poison is gathering/festivities of poor; old man’s young wife is poison

Here’s the meaning-

  • Knowledge: ‘use it or lose it’. Knowledge, if not applied, decays and is lost forever.
  • Food: when not digested fully, becomes poison in the body.
  • Lack of Resources is poison: a gathering of resource-less people doesn’t accomplish much. It also means that the poor should not waste resources on extravagant parties.
  • A very young wife married to an old man is poison (!)

What is the test for half-knowledge? Thinking we have full knowledge and a complete absence of self-doubt.

What is the test for ‘full’ knowledge? That’s a trick question. There is no such thing.

It’s The Fragrance, Stupid

We were discussing the declining fortunes of a shampoo brand. Theories were flying back and forth among 5-8 people with more than 10,000 hours of sales and marketing experience between us. 

We considered all aspects of the business – from margins to pack size, from competitor moves to strength of distribution. No matter what angle we considered, no answer ‘felt’ right. Why weren’t enough consumers buying it?!!

One voice piped up and said – “I just don’t feel like buying the shampoo anymore. I find the fragrance boring.”

Everyone’s eyes lit up. And we realized we had not been thinking from the consumer’s perspective. Fragrance fatigue is a real issue with legacy brands. Brands have to make the familiar exciting and the exciting, familiar when it comes to fragrances.  

We smell not with our nose, but with our brain. That is why, fragrances unlock warehouses in our brains – warehouses packed full of memories, experiences, and emotions.

Read my essay “Sense of Scent” where I explore all this, click here.

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