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Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior December 7, 2009

Posted by Kavita Vora in Sway: Pull of Irrational Behavior, [Books] Leadership & Change.

In Sway, brothers Ori and Rom Brafman investigate what makes intelligent people make irrational decisions.  With a combination of Ph.D. in psychology and MBA, they offer a unique perspective into irrational behavior and offer recommendations on how we can “resist the sway”.

For anyone who has paid for cell phone minutes they won’t use just because they are afraid of going over, or felt a connection with someone because the other person displayed signs of being interested in them, or started out with good intentions of helping a coworker and but once they got rewarded for it they didn’t want to continue helping without another reward, these are all examples of how we get swayed in our decision making.

Psychological forces that influence irrational behavior:

  • Aversion to loss
  • Commitment
  • The Chameleon Effect
  • Diagnosis Bias
  • Incentive vs. Altruism

Loss aversion can create costly mistakes, such as in the Tenerife air disaster of 1977.  Pilot Captain Jacob Van Zanten led KLM’s safety course programs and had a spotless record of on time flights.  In analyzing this tragedy, it has become clear that the Captain made drastically different decisions than he would have if not under the pressure of avoiding a perceived potential loss.  Since the stakes kept getting higher and higher, Zanten took higher risks to avoid those losses.  In retrospect the potential gain vs. loss was not weighed objectively and he was lacking an effective feedback mechanism from his crew.

The Brafman brothers also discuss their theory of the swamp of commitment in which past success makes us want to use the same strategy over and over rather than incorporating feedback that may indicate a new strategy is needed.  They offer examples from the arenas of sports and politics that bring to light that the higher the potential loss, the more optimistic we become in hoping everything will be ok, rather than reevaluating our strategy.

I thought this was a great read full of stories which bring the principles to life. I highly recommend Sway and my major takeaways were to (1) second your first impression to stay open minded, (2) focus on the long term to avoid short term loss panics, (3) reevaluate your incentive strategy so it doesn’t derail altruistic motivations, and (4) be actively aware of your assumptions and paradigms.



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