Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review - Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman

Short review: People are irrational but consistently so, and for somewhat explainable reasons.

Tenerife air crash
The irrational explained
Human decisions

Full review: Why do people make seemingly silly choices, choosing to spend hundreds of dollars to acquire something that is declared to be worth twenty or less? Why do people maintain a commitment to wrong-headed decisions even after it becomes clear that are heading to ruin? Why do we allow worry about possible losses cause us to forgo easy gains, and even suffer losses? Sway is an exploration of these types of irrational behavior, and an attempt to explain why we do what we do. As an introduction to the ideas underlying behavioral economics, and the concept of predictable human irrationality, the book is decent. However, because it the treatment of the material is so superficial, for anyone already familiar with the basics of behavioral economics, this book will probably not be particularly valuable.

In the opening chapter, the authors give specific examples of "irrational behavior": Doctors pouring asbestos into the chest cavities of patients during open heart surgery despite the evidence that this was killing them, the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger despite the recommendations against it from the O-ring manufacturers, physicians repeatedly sending a child home from the emergency room without checking her because they had decided that her mother was just being hysterical. And so on. It is this impulse - the irrational attachments that humans have to decisions they have made - that sits at the core of human irrational behavior, and serves as the starting point for the book.

The authors use the Tenerife air disaster as their primary example of irrational behavior, trying to explain how an experienced pilot, the head of KLM's safety program, could make a series of almost inexplicably poor decisions that would lead to an on-runway collision costing the lives of hundreds of people, including everyone aboard his aircraft. This example is returned to several times in the book, as the litany of bad decisions illustrates each of the major causes of irrational decision making: loss aversion, diagnosis bias, group bias, and so on. By such disparate means as the egg and orange juice purchasing habits of American consumers, the relative playing time given to NBA players, the voting patterns of audience members in various versions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and a number of other examples, the authors illustrate all of the various psychological forces that result in humans making seemingly stupid decisions.

Given the subject matter of the book, comparisons to Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational (read review) and The Upside of Irrationality (read review) are almost inevitable, and it is when viewed in this light that Sway comes up somewhat short. There is nothing particularly wrong with the book, but I suspect that the fact that the examples used by the authors to illustrate their points were almost all second hand accounts for it. In Ariely's books he discusses much the same psychological territory, but uses examples drawn from experiments that either he or graduate students under his supervision have conducted, which gives his books an immediacy that Sway simply lacks. This element also allows Ariely's books to be much more precise when illustrating particular quirks of human behavior, because the experiments in question were specifically designed to identify and test particular points. This does not mean that when the Brafmans cite the "love bridge" experiment to illustrate the effect that anxiety and adrenaline have on sexual interest that they are not making a salient point, but rather that because they are relating an experiment second hand, that it seems less compelling than if they were relating experiments that they had set up and observed directly.

The corollary of this lack of direct involvement is that the Brafmans seem less able to use their observations concerning human nature to make suggestions for possible uses for the particularly human idiosyncrasies that they identify and examine. Whereas Ariely's studies concerning the human propensity to cheat were driven by a desire to understand why the executives at Enron engaged in the behavior that led to the collapse of the company, and further to figure out what sort of system could be put in place to discourage such behavior in the future, the Brafmans seem to have no prescriptive suggestions as to how one might prevent a recurrence of the Tenerife disaster, and don't even seem to think that such suggestions might be important or interesting to the reader.

Even so, the strange patterns that the authors identify are interesting and carry the book, especially in the latter chapters where they focus on the psychology of group behavior and the distinction between social and economic decisions (and the impossibility of the two to function in conjunction with as opposed to in alternative with one another). While Sway doesn't break any new ground, or offer any new insights to anyone who has had contact with the field of behavioral economics and the study of decision-making, it is a well-written and very readable introduction to those fields.

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  1. I read the first two, not sure I'll read this one.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: If you've read Ariely's books, you probably don't need to read this one. It covers a lot of the same ground that Ariely did.