Sway: A book review by Bob Morris

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior
Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman
Broadway Books (2008)

The Brothers Brafman seem to have an insatiable curiosity about what may, at first, seem to be aberrational human behavior but is in fact commonplace. In Sway, the Brafmans seek answers to questions such as these: Why would skilled and experienced physicians make decisions that contradict their years of training? What psychological forces underlie our own irrational behaviors? How do these forces creep up on us? When and why are we most vulnerable to them? How do they shape our business and personal relationships? When and how do they put finances, even our lives, at risk? And why don’t we realize when we’re being swaying?

As they explain in the Preface, their objective in this book is to explore “several of the psychological forces that derail rational thinking. Wherever we looked – across different sectors, countries, and cultures – we saw different people being swayed in very similar ways. We’re all susceptible to the sway of irrational behaviors. But by better understanding the deductive pull of these forces, we’ll be less likely to fall victim to them in the future.”

For example, in “The Hobbit and the Missing Link,” the Brafmans focus on a precocious young Dutch student named Eugene Dubois (1858-1940) who, after earning his degree in medicine, marriage, starting a career as well as a family, decided to seek what was then believed to be the missing link between apes and the more humanlike Neanderthals. He found it in the East Indies but both he and his discovery was largely ignored. Why? Because his contemporaries were firmly committed to a certain view of evolution that Dubois’ discovery challenged. Moreover, “there was another force at play. Here’s where commitment merges with the sway of ‘value attribution’: our tendency to imbue someone or something with certain qualities based on perceived value, rather than on objective data.”(This is one of the eight deceptions that Phil Rosenzweig discusses in his book, The Halo Effect.) The Brafmans also cite a more contemporary example of how value attribution works and how it swayed the anthropological community. In Washington, D.C. on a January morning in 2007, Joshua Bell (one of the world’s finest violinists) performed for 43 minutes in the L’Enfant Plaza subway station. “Here was one of best musicians in the world playing in the subway station for free, but no one seemed to care.”

If you share my own need to resist the “seductive pull” of irrational behavior (especially my own), you will find this book invaluable. If you require no such assistance, you will find this book thoroughly entertaining.

 

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