I’ve always been fascinated by the world of “patent medicines” – those Victorian cure-alls, elixirs and potions. They have magnificent names (“Hamlin’s Wizard Oil”, “Mug-Wump”, “Beetham’s Glycerine & Cucumber”, “Oil of Gladness”). They have bold advertisements (“there is no sore it will not heal, no pain it will not subdue”). And more than anything, they have highly dubious scientific bases. They’re the foundation of much of modern medicine, they pioneered advertising techniques that are still used today, and they represent an intriguing mystery: why did they sell so well for so long, when they very obviously didn’t work?

That’s the focus of this week’s article: why did snake oil sell, and is there any reason to suspect it won’t sell just as well in the future?

This week’s article

Why snake oil succeeds

Few products in history have been as successful as the “snake oil” of the 1800s and early 1900s. But why did these products succeed, when they didn’t work? Answering that means digging into our capacity for motivated reasoning, manipulative advertising, and wishful thinking – factors that haven’t changed much in the intervening century.

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This week’s three interesting links

Vector-based pedestrian navigation in cities

A fascinating paper that analyses how humans navigate cities on foot, and how their routes compare to the optimal ones.

It turns out that we’re remarkably good at finding near-optimal routes without resorting to complex calculations; we use heuristics and we “satisfice” for a good-enough route. But it turns out that, when our route planning is sub-optimal, it’s sub-optimal in predictable ways.

One such puzzling way we consistently differ from the optimal route is our tendency to pick asymmetrical routes; we walk a different route on our way to a destination than the one we walk coming back. This reveals a heuristic that we use, which the researchers called the “initial straightest segment” heuristic: we’ll set out on our journey by heading in a direction that’s as close to the direction of our ultimate destination as possible, even if the shortest route actually means taking a slightly different direction first. On the way back, we do the same thing – which often means picking a slightly different route.

A really neat example of using mobile data to discover fundamental aspects of human behaviour (and in a non-creepy way!)

Christian Bongiorno, Yulun Zhou, et. al. “Vector-based pedestrian navigation in cities”. Nature Computational Science 1(678–685), October 2021 #

What’s the deal with fictional influencers?

Vox writes about the spate of fictional characters on TikTok:

“In June, the UK tabloid the Mirror published a story about a TikTok video that discussed “the four biggest dating app red flags,” according to a creator named @sydneyplus, who said she worked at a dating site. Said red flags include standing in front of a fancy car (likely not their own), describing oneself as an “entrepreneur,” or being weirdly obsessed with their mom. The article is a typical hastily written web post capitalizing on trending content in order to drive pageviews, and was later picked up by the New York Post. The only problem was that @sydneyplus doesn’t work at a dating site, because @sydneyplus doesn’t really exist.”

Ryan Broderick covered this this week, taking the time to fall down the rabbit hole of fake-influencer videos:

“I hadn’t had the time to really sit down and go through these accounts until recently and I really can’t overstate how surreal the whole thing is. The Sydney character just completed a storyline on her account and to see it progress over dozens of short videos is really mind-bending.

“On her page, Sydney identifies herself as a dating app employee, which, I mean, ethically is, at the very least, weird. In August, Sydney told her followers that she got a ‘report of an account that was unusually active.’ She then discovered the account belongs to her sister’s fiancé. And then, across 37 TikTok videos posted across a month and a half, Sydney chronicled how she tried to tell her sister about the cheating before the couple gets married. It’s totally weird and, once again, none of this is real.”

Broderick wonders if it’s not part of a long-term shift, a blurring of lines between entertainment and social media:

“There was this assumption many years ago that YouTubers would eventually graduate to traditional entertainment. There was a brief moment where internet celebrities were given chances to host TV shows or star in movies. But it really hasn’t ever stuck. Even the current wave of TikTok emo is beginning to feel more and more like a flash in the pan. But what if we got it wrong all along? What if, instead of influencers becoming movie stars, scripted entertainment was supposed to morph into formats that fit parasocial online relationships?”


The big idea: Is the era of the skyscraper over?

Oliver Wainwright sums up the cycles of pessimism that we’ve had when it comes to tall office buildings, ending on a bullish note:

“But a chorus of urban theorists argue that it will ultimately be impossible for the human species to resist the lure of density. In their new book, Survival of the City, Harvard economics professors Ed Glaeser and David Cutler write that ‘the ability of cities to enable the joys of human interactions and shared experiences may be their greatest protection against urban exodus’.”