Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior Ori Brafman has previously co-written The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations along with Rod Beckstrom. I’ve previously mentioned the book a couple of times, and was looking forward to delving into Ori’s new book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, written with his brother, Rom Brafman.  I was pleased when it arrived by FedEx, and I devoured it pretty quickly.

Comparing well with Blink and The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, Sway, like Starfish, is well-written and entertaining as the Brafmans explain how people’s judgment is swayed in various contexts.  Recognizing the types of context in which one’s judgment is likely to be swayed can help avert poor decision-making.  As the old saying goes, “forewarned is forearmed.”

In the opening chapters, the authors outline concepts like irrational commitment to a strategy, the impact of context or price on value judgments, and “playing not to lose” rather than playing to win or to realize profit.  In each case, the book explores examples illustrating factors that lead to irrational behaviour in decision-making.  Once committed to a strategy or an ideal outcome, people tend not to want to change course until it occurs, even if circumstances change so that they would no longer expect the same outcome with a fresh approach, they remain committed to an unrealistic strategy.  The classic example is of an investor who wants to sell a stock at a certain level of profit.  When the stock begins to go down, he eventually changes strategy to sell when it goes back up to the point at which he acquired it — in other words, the point at which he doesn’t lose money.  Ignoring the signals, the investor rides the stock all the way to the bottom… even though if he were evaluating purchasing the stock somewhere during its slide, he would rationally reject the idea outright.  Committment to the original strategy in this case is irrational.  Chapter four should be of particular interest to speed-daters and HR managers. Contrary to the intuitive flashes of correct assessment outlined in Gladwell’s Blink, the Brafmans suggest that short interviews are prone to wrong assessments, and are less reliable than factual profiles and standardized testing.

Chapters five through seven begin to delve more into the types of behaviour and situation that tend to produce sway, contrasting these with those which do not.  Several experiments are cited which illustrate the subject being swayed, and then specific factors are changed and the rate at which the subject is swayed is noted.  For example, subjects in a test were prone to give an obviouly incorrect answer if all the other subjects (actors, in this case) gave the wrong answer.  Having a lone dissenter seemed to break the power of this kind of sway, even if the dissenter gave a different wrong answer or was portrayed as incompetent.

One important factor that comes up in this context is “fairness.”  In one experiment, two subjects are separated by a curtain; they do not meet their partner and are told they won’t see each other after the experiment concludes.  One person is given a sum of money and told they must decide how to split it with the other person.  The other person may accept or reject the offer, but any rejection or attempt at negotiation will mean that neither party gets the money.  Often, a 50/50 split would occur, but when the recipient of the funds proposed a split that favoured them, it was most often rejected.  Of $100, a person being offered $40 would therefore reject the offer because the other person would get $60, which in his mind “wasn’t fair,” so they’d rather leave with nothing.  The logical answer would be that $40, though not $50, is greater than $0.  In some other cultures, this factor did not hold as true, and a split of 85/15% would normally be accepted.

Value assessments are explored as well, and altruism is countered in the process.  In one experiment, people in Switzerland would accept a toxic waste dump in their region for the greater good of the company.  When tax relief of any kind was offered as a form of offsetting compensation, the percentage of people willing to accept the dump dropped dramatically.  Regardless of the dollar-value of the tax relief, it was not considered enough to offset the risk.  On the other hand, the absence of compensation allowed altruism to take over and the dump would be accepted without compensation.

In chapter eight and in the Epilogue which follows it, the book explores how the Supreme Court ensures that the power of sway does not take over, even if there is only one justice who dissents with a decision.  Similarly, commercial airplane crews are trained to avoid being swayed into unsafe actions.  The person portrayed as resisting sway is called a “blocker,” and the value of these types of personalities are discussed.  In some situations, a person is assigned to be the “blocker” or “Devil’s Advocate” in the consideration of a decision, simply to ensure that an alternate viewpoint is presented.  This is commonly enough to break the power of sway and release the remainder of a committee to fully consider a decision and take the most prudent and logical course of action.  The Epilogue might appropriately have been titled Chapter Nine, as in these final two chapters of the book come the most practical advice on avoiding sway.

The book is a quick easy read, and I quite enjoyed it.  As it offers valuable insight into the workings of “sway,” it can be helpful to anyone who participates in a committee or board or anyone who makes decisions in a business (or other) environment, whether related to staffing, purchasing, or strategy. Understanding how we are swayed and how to guard against it can be a great aid in avoiding the potentially costly mistake of commitment to a bad strategy, or of failing to voice dissent when required.  Recommended reading. Available online from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca.