When Efficiency Isn’t The Point

Pillsbury started making instant cake mix in the 1940s, but it didn’t sell well.

It didn’t make sense to them because the mix made things easier. All you had to do was add water and you had something you could eat. Other companies sold instant cake mix as well, but the executives at Pillsbury thought that they had the better product because no one had a formula as complete as theirs.

Then Ernest Dichter came along. His realisation was that making a cake is not mere drudgery. Cakes held meaning. They showed love. And the women who baked cakes didn’t feel that they were investing enough emotion when they used the mix.

Pillsbury listened to Dichter. They abandoned the original plan to have a mix complete with all the ingredients and took the eggs out. Sales soared, and they never looked back.

Cake mixes have come a long way since then. A quick Google search tells you that there are probably hundreds of flavours available, and you can even use them for things outside baking. But the one thing that has remained true is that unlike instant noodles, you can’t just add water and let heat do the rest of the work. You need to put in more effort than that.

There’s a lot in the world that follows the same pattern. You’d think that with modern technology, there’d be no more inefficiency because we’d have a quicker and cheaper way to do things. But this line of reasoning assumes that everything is built around efficiency.

Relationships are the best example of where this premise falls apart. Take the social ritual of gift giving. It seems entirely inefficient and ridiculous that we should know what to get someone. But that’s precisely what makes this ritual valuable. The fact that we have to painstakingly consider what someone might like — and that no one else will — is a signal that we value that person. Thoughtful is the word we use, but what we really mean is that we appreciate that someone thinks we’re worth going through this tedious process.

You could never explain this if all you considered was efficiency.

You can’t explain why male peacocks have bright tail feathers, why some people might spend thousands of dollars on a luxury watch when a Casio tells time better, or why companies continue to buy billboards when they could better reach potential customers through Facebook ads.

Or why someone might decide to run a marathon. Why someone might spend hours discussing a topic that has no practical impact on their lives. Or why they might write a post like this.

There’s signalling. Standing up for principle. Appreciating the nature and beauty that is around us. Self-fulfillment. And just about a hundred other reasons why we might do something.

Efficiency isn’t always the point.

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