The Sway of Conventionality

Thinking like the crowd won’t help me now.   Oh Girl (song written by E. Record)

No one is likely to win a popularity contest by playing the devil’s advocate.   Sway

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior might have been subtitled The Force of Conventionality.   That’s because the pair of brother-authors clearly establish that while following the crowd may make you popular, it is less likely to make you rich or right.   One of the brothers had the idea for this book while sitting in a business school graduate level class and hearing a professor state, “People aren’t rational.”   That is something I also heard in graduate school.   Who, after all, would need a legal/criminal justice system if people acted rationally 100% of the time?

In this book we learn why college football coaches so often lose games when they’re playing not to lose (doesn’t the prevent defense always prevent the team from winning?).   And we learn why presidents enter wars they know they cannot win.   Also, we’re made to understand why we so stubbornly remain in losing situations – whether gambling our fortunes or gambling in love – instead of wisely cutting our losses early on.

One of the ways in which the Brafman brothers explain the notion of loss aversion is that the part of our brain that experiences and seeks pleasure tends to often defeat the part that is responsible for judgment and caution.   The controlling part of our brain, unfortunately, seeks short-term gains rather than adopting a saner long-term view.   As the authors note, “When we adopt the long-term view…  (the) immediate potential losses don’t seem as menacing.”

Most importantly, the authors explain the hazards of group thinking at work and in our society.   Group think so often results in poor, consensus based, decisions that the role of the sole and brave devil’s advocate is essential – he or she should be given a medal rather than castigated.   For the devil’s advocate represents the “…brakes that prevent a group from going down a potentially disastrous path.”   This “can literally save lives.”

To their credit, the authors present numerous examples of poor decisions in many fields from aviation to education and – naturally – the business world.   They also present many examples of exemplary and innovative thinking.   As a bonus, they throw in an explanation of a theory about the four roles that a person can assume within a family (personal or business).   One can be an initiator, a braker, a supporter or an observer.   The reader will enjoy trying to decide where he/she fits in…   I think I’m an observer-braker and occasional supporter.

I’m very rarely engaged by review (or survey) books that cover a lot of territory as I find they often make questionable connections between events of different times and places.   No, I’m not a fan of “connection” based works.   But this book is interesting from page 1 all the way through to page 181.

Reading this book offers the reader lessons which will likely make him/her a better – and certainly more rational – person.   There are also critical lessons to be learned by our society in general; let’s just hope it’s not too late.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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