Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman. Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior
Sway takes its place among a number of similar books now on the market which popularize recent psychological research on human irrationality (much of which goes back to the pioneering work of Kahneman and Tversky). It’s a short, breezy, but entertaining survey of the literature, written by a team of brothers, one a psychologist and the other an organizational expert. The goal here is clearly to popularize, and I suspect at times the dumbing-down has gone a bit too far, but I nevertheless found the book a fun way to spend a couple of hours.
One rather central point that puzzled me had to do with the authors’ understanding of the main term in their inquiry, “irrationality.” It might be that they explained at some point what they mean by this incredibly slippery term, and I just missed it. But at different points in the book the term seemed to me to mean quite different things.
Here is one sort of irrationality discussed by the authors: It is well documented that we have a tendency to strongly bias original impressions, and to discount evidence relevant to a reconsideration of our original impression. For example, draft pick order seems to play an outsized role in play time granted to professional basketball players, when much more sensible metrics are available for judging their performance which actually seem to cut against decisions made on the basis of draft pick order. Now, suppose you could sit down a coach and explain this to him. You might be able to show that the coach’s own goals are not well served by the way he makes use of the available evidence, and you could demonstrate that his decision-making process falls into well-known patterns of suboptimal decision-making. And the coach might smack his forehead and say, “I’ve been irrational!”
Now consider a very different case, which supposedly also illustrates “irrationality.” Take two people, hand one of them $10, and explain the rules of the following game: The two are not to communicate in any way; they are strangers; they will not be playing this game again. The player holding the $10 bill gets to make a single proposal to the other player about how to divide the money. If the other player accepts the division of money, the two part with the proposed shares; if the other player rejects the division, neither player gets anything.
It is an interesting fact that most people offered less than $5 reject the offer, preferring to walk away with nothing. (Actually, it is another interesting fact that individuals from different cultures apparently make very different choices when playing this game.) Some economists and psychologists have argued that the choice is irrational, and Brafman and Brafman follow them in the description. If you’re offered $3, the thinking goes, you might as well take it, since $3 is more than $0. It appears that people really don’t like being shafted, and it matters enough to them to punish the other player that in order to impose the punishment they’re willing to forfeit what they might have otherwise gained.
But notice that if this is irrational, it’s clearly a different kind of irrationality from the one mentioned above. The kind of irrationality mentioned above involves an agent’s improper use of evidence to achieve the agent’s own goals. And once pointed out, it’s the kind of mental habit that we might resolve to avoid in the future. But I don’t see how additional evidence or explanation could get people to reconsider walking away from $3. The fact is, they don’t like unfairness; it matters to them, as well as money; and in some cases, it matters to them more than money. The preference for fairness is built into their own preference structure, and the preference for money is just one more preference within that preference structure alongside others. Indeed this is why the decision doesn’t strike me as necessarily irrational: walking away from the $3 may well maximize the agent’s carefully considered and properly weighted preferences.
I should say that the subtitle of the book, suggesting that the pull of the irrational is irresistible, is unduly pessimistic. In an epilogue, the authors quite reasonably point out that awareness of the different ways in which we fail to be fully rational might help us to make better decisions. This seems to be true. Indeed, it’s at least half the appeal of books like Sway.
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