Monday, December 06, 2010

Review: Sway

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior is a book by the same folks who wrote Click. If by now you're thinking that I should be burned out on Neuroscience/Irrationality books you are absolutely right. I'm going to have to stop reading books like these for a while.

Unlike Priceless, however, Sway is short and contains many little items that I wasn't aware of in other books. It does go over some old stuff, including the sunk cost fallacy, loss aversion, and other very human foibles. However, it also includes some new experiments I hadn't heard about. One particularly memorable experiment has an experimenter posing as a student taking a survey of hikers who have walked across one of two bridges: a swinging bridge, and a traditional stable one. After interviewing the hikers, the experimenter would give her phone number to the hiker. Two interesting results came out of the experiment: the majority of the hikers who called the experimenter came off the swinging bridge. The hypothesis was that the adrenaline rush and closeness to danger made the hikers much more attracted to the experimenter. Thus the experiment was repeated but this time the experimenter only approached the hikers after a few minutes so that the adrenaline rush would die down. Indeed, the number of calls dropped. The experiment was repeated with a male "surveyor", and he got no calls. (Presumably, all the hikers were male) This explains why men try to get women to see horror movies with them on dates.

What's even better is that the book does provide antidotes to the kind of fallacies that it introduces. A particularly important one is the role of a devil's advocate and introducing dissent into the picture. Fundamentally, an organization that has at least one dissenter, even if the dissenter was also or obviously wrong provides cover for other (possibly more clear-sighted) dissenters to raise their objections rather than following group-think. This is particularly important when stakes are high, and appears to make the majority think harder about their decisions and in some cases, mitigate some of the worst errors. This is an important result, because as we've seen in How the Mighty Fall, the first step on the road to failure is an inability to acknowledge that you could be wrong. Naming an official "devil's advocate" as part of the decision making process would go a long way towards mitigating or preventing such problems.

All in all, a short book, a quick read, but lots of little gems. Recommended.
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