Book Review: Sway


Note: This is #51 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.

Much like Predictably Irrational from earlier this year, Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman’s Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior seeks to educate us on quirks of the human mind that lead us to engage in decidedly irrational behavior. And it covers a lot of the same topics: confirmation bias, first impressions, loss aversion, diagnostic bias, sunk costs, and more.

The brothers Brafman do take a slightly different approach to the topic, though. They use these kinks in human nature to answer a variety of questions that they set up with short vignettes. What causes college football coaches to doggedly stick to losing strategies? What caused a jet pilot to risk his life and the lives of his passengers just to save a little time? How does the U.S. Supreme Court manage its own group dynamics to ensure that dissenting opinions are heard? Why would someone pay $200 for a $20 bill? Why would a studio audience deliberately sabotage a contestant seeking a “lifeline” in the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Why would a dot com millionaire sit and watch all his newfound wealth slowly trickle away when he could stop it any time he wanted? Why would subway commuters ignore a free concert by a world-class musician playing on a priceless Stradivarius violin? Read this book and you’ll not only find out, but you’ll start to see where you’re guilty of similar crimes of irrationality in your own life.

Ultimately, though, I didn’t like Sway quite as much as Predictably Irrational because the authors seemed intent on keeping the language and the approach too mainstream. Instead of relying on descriptions of scientific studies that prove their points, the authors rely more on stories and case studies to make most of their points. This is fine and they’re good enough storytellers to keep your attention, but being trained in psychology and the associated research methods myself, I kind of a geek for descriptions of study designs, hypotheses, and the like.

But maybe that’s just me and Sway is the more accessible book for most people. The voice that the authors use manages to strike the right balance between educational and breezy. They’re often cheeky, too –you gotta respect any authors who, after listing blurbs and quotes by experts in praise of them on the back cover of the book, tell you that if you buy the book because of these quotes you’re being completely irrational. (But, they say, you should totally still buy the book.)

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Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

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