Gillian Tett on looking at the world like an anthropologist

Here is an excerpt from an intdrview by Raju Narisetti of Gillian Tett —  the Financial Times markets and finance columnist and US managing editor — for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. She presents a radically different strategy for making sense of the business world today: anthropology.

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In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Raju Narisetti chats with award-winning financial journalist and anthropology PhD Gillian Tett. In her new book, Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life (Simon & Schuster, June 2021), Tett explores how anthropologists get inside the minds of people to help them understand other cultures and appraise their own environment—from studying big-box warehouses to shedding light on practical questions such as why corporate projects fail and how companies sell products like pet food. An edited excerpt of the conversation follows.Why did you write this book?

I believe that so many of the mistakes that came out of the great financial crisis and so many of the other mistakes that have beset both companies and countries in recent years have occurred because of tunnel vision and a lack of lateral vision, or as I call it, “anthro-vision.”

When the pandemic hit in 2020, there was a lot of discussion about life postpandemic and building back better. And I believe passionately that to build back better, we don’t just need policy debate or gazillions of dollars of stimulus or things like that.

We also need to change the way policy makers, business leaders, financiers, and executives actually think and look at the world around them. And, in a nutshell, people need to move from tunnel vision to lateral vision. The late 20th century was marked by a time when we created these fantastic intellectual tools to navigate the world.

Like economic models, like corporate balance sheets, like big data sets. And they are all brilliant and useful. Let me stress that. But they’re limited. Because you can only use them effectively if you look at context—if you look at the wider environment and culture and issues like that, particularly where that context is changing. And right now the context is changing. So I say we need to look beyond just narrow tunnel-vision models and actually try to look at the wider environment we’re operating in.

Why can’t medicine alone stop pandemics?

The core message of the book is that social science, anthropology need to be combined with medical science, computer science, economic science to really create an effective new way of building back better and looking at the world. And what’s happened with the pandemic is a classic example of that.

Because to fix the pandemic, you definitely need brilliant medical science. The geniuses who came out and collaborated on the vaccines did an incredible service to humanity. What we learned in the pandemic is that medicine alone doesn’t work unless you also understand the social and cultural context and the incentives shaping people.

What we learned in the pandemic is that medicine alone doesn’t work unless you also understand the social and cultural context and the incentives shaping people.

Because you can have all the vaccines in the world, but if you can’t persuade a population to take them, then you can’t beat a pandemic. In the UK, Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the British civil service, lamented the fact that although the UK government had devised its policy on the back of medical science, it took a very long time for the UK to get ahead of the pandemic because it didn’t look at the social-science component or how humans behave.

Or, to take a more positive example, if you look at why masks are so effective, one way to explain that is because the physical fabric stops germs. Another equally important way to explain it is because the act of putting on a mask is a powerful psychological prompt that reminds people to change their behavior. It’s also a group’s thinking device that tells people, other people and yourself, that you’re adhering to civic norms. And that is incredibly important in a pandemic. Actually, we have known that from anthropology for a long time in Asia. If only Western leaders had not been so full of hubris and learned lessons from Asia earlier on, we probably could have beaten the pandemic a lot earlier.

When COVID-19 started, there were social scientists and doctors who said, “We have to learn the lessons from Ebola as well as from SARS in Asia and apply them to how we devise pandemic policy in the West.”

Now, in some cases, the lessons were learned the same way that New Yorkers were persuaded en masse to embrace masks, which was such a completely alien concept a year ago, particularly because in New York mask wearing wasn’t imposed by rules or laws, as it was in other parts of the world, but instead by social norms.

But in other cases, the issues of social behavioral science were sadly ignored. And the converse of New York’s mask-wearing culture, which I do think has really helped to fight the pandemic, has been London, where the behavioral science was essentially ignored.

The communication went back and forth and back and forth in a completely confusing way. And you ended up with a population that was so grumpy, so angry, that you had a flare-up toward late 2020, which was very damaging indeed for Britain.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.




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