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59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot

Written By Professor Richard Wiseman, Reviewed By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking and utterly engaging book that will fit in with the inevitable interruptions of a busy holiday schedule, this could be the one for you. 


Its premise is this: everyone wants quick and easy improvements in their lives, their mindset, and their effectiveness at work and at home. The self-help industry thrives on supplying advice to meet this need. The trouble is that self-help can range from anecdotal solutions at best to dangerous urban myths at worst. But what, Professor Wiseman pondered, if there were:

…tips and techniques hidden away in academic journals that were empirically supported but quick to carry out?

The answer is that he found them – and surely those relating to happiness that he found in the extensive positive psychology literature were not at all hidden away!


The book covers the following topics that address a wide range of aspects of personal well-being, relationships, and professional effectiveness:

  1. Happiness
  2. Persuasion
  3. Motivation
  4. Creativity
  5. Attraction
  6. Stress
  7. Relationships
  8. Decision Making
  9. Parenting
  10. Personality

Inviting Introductions

Each chapter starts with a tantalising glimpse of its contents. The quote below is how the title page of the Persuasion chapter reads – really, it’s irresistible!

Why rewards fail, how to give the perfect interview, improve your social life by making mistakes, never lose your wallet again, and convince anyone of anything by using your pet frog.

Persuasion 101: Add a Frog

Let me put you out of your misery on the pet frog front, and give you a flavour for the book in the process.

In a 1981 study based on a series of negotiations for a piece of art, the seller made the final offer in one of two ways: the first was a straight price, and the second injected humour, saying “…and I’ll throw in my pet frog”. The buyers made far greater compromises on the purchase price with the second approach. The effect was the same for men and women, and regardless of how far the final price was above the initial purchase price offered. It seems that the shot of humour put the purchasers for a moment into a better mood and encouraged them to be more giving.

Could be worth trying, and it would take far less than a minute of your time!

A Quirky Grab Bag

Wiseman wrote an earlier book called Quirkology. I haven’t read it but I can’t help noticing the quirky facts he likes to scatter through his chapters. In fact, each chapter is a series of snapshots of studies that approach the topic in question from several angles. Thus in the persuasion chapter we have :

  • how to make yourself more likeable in a variety of settings;
  • how to word donation requests to get the maximum response;
  • how to work reciprocity and favours for maximum return on your ‘investment’;
  • where to sit in a meeting to have the best chance of making a good impression;
  • how to get help when you are faced with a crowd of people who all expect ‘someone else’ to come to your aid (overcoming the Bystander Effect).

Hard Research

Can all the insights reported in this book be traced back to large scale, randomised, double blind tests? In a word, no. But each one is sourced to a piece of academic research and is listed in the almost 30 pages of Notes at the back of the book. The pet frog insight, for example, is sourced to O’Quin and Aronoff in Social Psychology Quarterly in a 1981 article called Humor as a Technique in Social Influence.


The fact that the interventions and tips in this book are based on scientific studies does not mean that they will work for everyone all the time. But at least they can tell you how likely it is that the technique will work and that is where Wiseman’s approach departs from the many self-help books on offer.

Engrossing and Engaging This is not a book full of flowing narrative! But for the curious, it offers a ten-course feast of fascinating insights and case studies drawn from the annals of scientific journals that will engross and challenge you and you’ll find several of the chapters will also engage you with quizzes and puzzles.

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