How Easily Are You Swayed?

I’m on a roll. I just finished another book in my ever-growing queue. Written by brothers Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior is a short but sweet New York Times Bestseller about the psychological and sociological forces that frequently sabotage logic and decision-making in our personal and professional lives. Most of us think of ourselves as rational and objective, but this book proves that we’re all much more prone to irrational behavior than we realize. It also shows that knowledge is power and that a basic awareness of the forces that sometimes lead to irrational decisions can lessen or eliminate their impact.

The book is full of entertaining and enlightening real-life anecdotes and scientific studies highlighting the various psychological and sociological forces at work in our everyday lives that often cause us to act, well, unreasonably. Some of these illustrations include: how a well-reputed airline pilot went against years of training and in so doing caused the worst plane crash in history, how respected archaeologists betrayed their own objective methods by eschewing scientific evidence that challenged established theories, how a professor is consistently able to get Harvard students to pay him more than $20 for a twenty-dollar bill, how theater-goers enjoyed the same exact shows more when they paid more for their tickets, how NBA players are unable to shake the initial value attributed to them by their draft position despite superior performance over their careers, how crossing a dangerous rope bridge makes men more likely to be attracted to a woman, how job interviews are pitiful ways of assessing job candidates, and on and on.

So what exactly are these so-called psychological forces that often cause us to betray logic and reason? According to the Brafmans:

These hidden currents and forces include loss aversion (our tendency to go to great lengths to avoid possible losses), value attribution (our inclination to imbue a person or thing with certain qualities based on initial perceived value), and the diagnosis bias (our blindness to all evidence that contradicts our initial assessment of a person or situation). (emphasis mine)

It is because of loss aversion that the airline pilot forgoes essential safety precautions so as not to tarnish his reputation of being on time. The urge to avoid loss of reputation was able to trump safety. It is also paradoxically because of loss aversion that the Harvard MBA student pays $204 for a twenty-dollar bill. (The context is an auction set-up by the professor whereby the students bid in $1 increments for the twenty-dollar bill. The winner of the auction, of course, wins the bill, but the catch is that the runner-up must still honor his or her bid while getting nothing in return.)

Value attribution is the force that causes theater patrons to enjoy shows that cost more money (because more expensive must mean better, right?). It’s also the phenomenon that frequently causes NBA players to be marked for the life of their careers based on the position in which they were drafted, despite often outperforming their counterparts who just so happened to be drafted in higher positions. Perhaps the most familiar example of value attribution is how lousy the common job interview is at predicting the actual subsequent success of a candidate on the job.

The archaeologists who held dogmatically to their existing theories in the face of obvious contradictory evidence are a prime example of diagnosis bias. In fact this might be the most common bias at work in our everyday lives as one doesn’t have to look far to find instances of favoring one’s own currently held views despite not even having heard or understood the evidence offered by opposing viewpoints.

So how do we break the overarching spell of these powerful psychological and sociological forces? So as not to spoil what I think is the most fascinating part of the book, the short answer is access to dissent. Put simply, the mere exposure to opposing viewpoints seems to be the elixir to the strong pull of these biases, even if the opposing viewpoint is ultimately deemed to be incorrect. There is strong evidence and research supporting this notion, which the Brafmans detail in the book, whereupon they conclude:

Whatever the situation, be it the cockpit or the conference room, a dissenting voice can seem, well, annoying. And yet, as frustrating as it can be to encounter blockers, their opinions are absolutely essential to keeping groups balanced. It’s natural to want to dismiss a blocker’s naysaying, but as we’ve seen, a dissenting voice–even an incompetent one–can often act as the dam that holds back a flood of irrational behavior.

They give the Supreme Court process of coming to a final opinion: intense deliberation, vocal opposition, and gradual refining and sometimes reversal of positions as a fine example of positive “blocking” and “dissent” in action.

Further, more specific, conclusions they draw based upon the research are:

For loss aversion

Our natural tendency to avoid the pain of loss is most likely to distort our thinking when we place too much importance on short-term goals. When we adopt the long-view, on the other hand, immediate potential losses don’t seem as menacing.

For value attribution

The best strategy…is to be mindful and observe things for what they are, not just for what they appear to be. You have to be prepared to accept that your initial impressions might be wrong. Simply realizing that we’re making judgments based on assumptions about a situation or a person’s value can free us from this sway.

For diagnosis bias, “personal construct theory” is proposed:

What personal construct theory teaches us is to remain flexible and examine things from different perspectives…this approach is called “propositional thinking.” It’s all about keeping evaluations tentative instead of certain, learning to be comfortable with complex, sometimes contradictory information, and taking your time and considering things from different angles before coming to a conclusion. It can be as straightforward as coming up with a kind of self-imposed “waiting period” before making a diagnostic judgment.

So there you have it. Go forth and be unswayed. (If only it were that simple!)


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