Author: Ori Brafman and Ron Brafman
Have you ever been on full tilt? Have you ever wondered exactly how you screwed yourself over by making a series of inexplicably and uncharacteristically poor decisions? Authors Ori and Rom Brafman think they might just have found the keys to unlocking the secrets of just why people famed for their rationality make incredibly irrational decisions or why everyday, all over the world, people make mistakes when they really should have known better. Their book, Sway: The irresistible pull of irrational behaviour, attempts to pull back the covers and break our bad decisions down into the various psychological forces, or sways, that influence us into making these decisions. It is extremely easy to underestimate the power that these forces have over us, especially if we are not subject to their pressure at the time, but ask anyone who has been under the extreme psychological duress that often accompanies a tough choice and you might see a different sort of pattern emerge.
At its heart, Sway attempts to be nothing more than an introduction of sorts to these various unseen psychological gears and buttons being pulled and pressed whenever we make a decision. It does not pretend to be a close examination of the psychological theory behind the six different types of biases it presents: the diagnosis bias, the commitment bias, loss aversion, value attribution, the procedural bias and group conformity. The Brafman brothers explain each sway individually, giving a simple, layman-friendly explanation of what these things are and substantiating these explanations with compelling examples. Each sway receives its own section and the sections are tied together by the overarching question of what were the various factors behind one of the more peculiar accidents in aviation history. The examples themselves are explained well and are drawn from a variety of fields and people, from finance to anthropology, and are, for the most part, backed up by hard numbers. These case studies are the cornerstones of what makes Sway so enjoyable; they demonstrate the ubiquity of the concepts discussed in the book but also keep the book from getting mired in more academic discussion. That said, there are times where it feels like the simplicity of the case studies doesn’t allow the authors to discuss the wider context of the problems that they are applying the concepts to. For instance, the value attribution bias discusses, among other things, how it affects the way we choose our significant others. By neglecting to mention the multitude of other factors involved in such a decision that the experiments quoted did not take into account, the authors end up weakening their own case. This happens to varying degrees throughout the book but since the book does not attempt a serious academic discussion of these topics, such oversights can be rather easily forgiven. One might also find that certain sections feature studies and experiments that deal with sample sizes that are far from convincing though, once again, it seems a little severe to take the authors to task for it.
Unsurprisingly, many of the sways discussed in the book are sound very familiar to people once the authors explain them. We can quite easily recall times that we have made decisions similar to those featured in the case studies and Sway essentially helps us put names to the familiar faces of psychological biases. There are typically two types of responses to this book: one set of readers will take this information in but accept these biases as natural and thus, will not seek change while the other set of readers will experience a knee-jerk reaction and swing all the way to the other extreme, seeking to ruthlessly stamp out every hint of psychological bias from their decision making. Both parties might be missing the point, however; Sway isn’t a self-help book, not really. It is not presenting these forces as something purely negative – in fact, the authors note that quite often, these forces all for much more efficient decision making and give us a peace of mind that is all too easy to take for granted, with the caveat that there are small handful of very specific type of situations in which those force can become detrimental. Perhaps it would be best to use the knowledge that the Brafman brother shares as tools for analysis and adjustment rather than a reason to totally revolutionize the way we make decisions.