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Why Smart Brains Make Stupid Decisions

It happens. Often.


We just secured an interview with Ori Brafman, co-author of Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior (Doubleday Business, 2008), to discuss our Dark Side (well, he calls it “different hidden forces” and “psychological undercurrents”).

While reading some reviews about his book, I particularly enjoyed finding, after the usual impressive long collection of endorsements, this “disclaimer”:

*DISCLAIMER: If you decide to buy this book because of these endorsements, you just got swayed. One of the psychological forces you’ll read about in Sway is our tendency to place a higher value on opinions from people in positions of prominence, power, or authority. (But you should still buy the book.)

Alvaro Fernandez (AF): Ori, what is SWAY? can you give us a couple quick examples?

Ori Brafman (OB): Sway is about why perfectly rational people make irrational choices. We interviewed business executives, airline pilots, doctors, and even a Supreme Court Justice to uncover the psychological forces that affect our decision-making. What was especially interesting was to find out that we all get swayed, and that these psychological forces are much more ubiquitous than we thought.

Take, for instance, the story of Jacob Van Zanten who was the head of safety for KLM. One foggy afternoon, Van Zanten took off without getting tower clearance, causing the biggest airline accident in history. Why would this man, who’s the head of safety make such an irrational choice?

Or look at the story of Harvard Business School students who paid $204 for a twenty-dollar bill.

AF: Happy to have attended Stanford… Now, how did that happen?

OB: The professor set up an auction for a $20 bill. But there was a twist. The winner would get the $20 bill. But the second place bidder, would still have to honor his bid, but would get nothing. At first there are lots of bidders, but then as the bidding approaches $20 people start pulling out. Inevitably, though two people stay in. As the bidding continued to rise, the second-place person became determined to not be the sucker who pays good money for nothing in return. The amazing thing is that time after time the auction continues well past the $20 point. People are just so determined not to lose, that they keep on bidding up.

AF: Why do people get Swayed?

OB: Without realizing it, we get swept up by a host of different hidden forces. I think of it like being in a boat in the middle of the ocean. It may look like we’re standing still, but underneath the surface, undercurrents move us without us realizing it. The same thing happens with psychological undercurrents. In Sway, we look at some of the major undercurrents and explore how they intersect triggering so many different irrational behaviors. The thing is that we’re prone to psychological sways all of the time–whether we’re conducting a job interview, going out on a first date, or deciding whether to sell a stock.

AF: Let’s be practical for a minute… what can people do to Sway other people?

OB: We’re constantly engaged in a hidden dance of sorts where we sway people around us and are swayed by others. One of the most unusual studies we encountered has to do with what we call the chameleon effect. In the study, a group of men and women–who had never met each other–were told to have a short phone conversation. Now, before the conversation, each man was shown a picture of the woman he’d be talking to. Unbeknownst to the men, the pictures were fake. And half the men were shown a picture of a beautiful woman, while the other half were shown a picture of a less attractive woman. The pictures had nothing to do with how the real women looked like, and the real women had no idea that there were any pictures shown. The kicker is that the women who the men thought were pretty ended up sounding beautiful on the phone. And the women who the men thought were less attractive ended up sounding less beautiful. We take on the roles others ascribe to us. Think about that with employees or even with your kids. If we think someone is smart, there’s a good chance they’ll live up to that role.

AF: And what can people do to prevent being Swayed?

OB: The biggest step is to recognize how often we get swayed. We have a tendency to think that our decisions are rational, when in fact, different sways may have informed the decision. Once we realize that we’re prone to get swayed, the second step is figuring out specific strategies to counter the sway.
It ranges from taking a long-term perspective to using empirical models for job interviews.

AF: For example?

OB: We have a propensity to “diagnose” a job candidate from the first moment we meet him or her. We assign a diagnosis, and are unable to see things in a different light despite objective evidence to the contrary. It’s for this reason that job interviews are terrible predictors of actual performance. A much more effective approach is to conduct very structured interviews that don’t allow managers to get swayed. In these interviews, the questions are pre-scripted and focus on experience and ability rather than vague things like “what’s your biggest strength?” We call these the Joe Friday interview (just the facts…) These interviews may seem less personal, but they’re actually much more effective for actually selecting a good candidate.

AF: Ori, thank you very much for your time.

OB: My pleasure!


For more information:

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior (Doubleday Business, 2008).

– Other Brain and Mind Books.


Can you share a recent Stupid Decision made by a Smart Brain? If it refers to yourself…you get 1,000 bonus points! I’ll be happy to share mine as a comment below in a couple of days.

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5 Responses

  1. Bradley says:

    OB says:

    “The kicker is that the women who the men thought were pretty ended up sounding beautiful on the phone. And the women who the men thought were less attractive ended up sounding less beautiful. We take on the roles others ascribe to us.”

    When you say “ended up sounding beautiful on the phone,” do you mean the women sounded beautiful as rated by the men, or that the women sounded beautiful based on some ‘objective’ measure of how beautiful their speech was (e.g. based on the tonal qualities of their voice or coding of their speech acts).

    If you mean the former, that the women sounded more beautiful as rated by the men, then it seems that the data is better interpreted as showing that we ‘see’ people as fulfilling the roles we ascribe to them, rather than people actually fulfilling the roles we ascribe to them. Rather than the women actually acting more attractive, the men are likely just interpreting the women’s actions as the actions of a more attractive woman. The women are not acting any different (i.e. are not fulfilling the roles the men ascribe to them); the men simply see (or hear) the women as fulfilling those roles. This would seem like the much more accurate interpretation of the data.

    It seems, however, that you’re suggesting the second interpretation–that women ‘objectively’ sounded more beautiful. You say that the women fulfill the roles ascribed to them, which seems to mean that they actually behaved differently in the two conditions (when men thought they were more versus less beautiful). And your example of employees and children fulfilling the roles ascribes to them also reveals that you favor this second interpretation. But for this interpretation to be right, there would have had to have been data recorded on the women’s behavior (viz. their speech). And then the researchers must have examined if the women’s behavior (e.g. the tone of their voices or their speech acts) differed significantly between the conditions–when the men had seen a more attractive picture versus when the men had seen a less attractive picture. (And they would have needed a coding system to label certain tonal qualities or speech acts as indicating a “more beautiful sounding woman” versus a “less beautiful sounding woman”). I would be very surprised if this were the case; but this is what would have been needed to support your interpretation.

    I am not familiar with the study you are discussing, so perhaps your interpretation is valid. And the idea that, to a significant extent, we fulfill the roles ascribed to us is almost certainly true (although I’m not familiar with that literature). But based on how you’ve described the study here, it’s ambiguous as to whether or not it supports that idea (since it’s not clear if the women “sounded” more beautiful to the men–which would not support ‘the idea’–or if the women sounded more beautiful ‘objectively’–which would support ‘the idea’).

  2. Bradley says:

    Also, on the point of how to avoid being Swayed, OB suggests that “the biggest step is to recognize how often we get swayed.” But it’s not clear how well that would work, and it may even be detrimental. See the post below which discusses a recent Science paper on the subject:—b.html

  3. Mike Logan says:

    Only the Shadow Knows…. Was that from the Green Hornet? This is such an amorphous topic, how will we ever discuss anything but hair splitting and how many angels can stand on the head of a pin? Shadow work however, can help me really determine some useful knowledge about how I make decisions.

  4. Alvaro says:

    Hello Mike, well, Bradley raises a pretty specific point. What do you say to it?

    Bradley: good comments, I’ll make sure Ori sees them so he can reply. I’ll also give them a bit more thought, the paper you link to is interesting, and only going meta will allow us to integrate both perspectives.

    I agree both with your article’s conclusion that “The fact that I can identify a particular bias in those I disagree with is only very weak evidence that I am more right than they” and Ori’s point that “the biggest step is to recognize how often we get swayed.” He is not talking about how not to sway other people but about how not to be swayed by other people. And the alternative to awareness is, of course, blissful ignorance.

    Will sleep on this…

  5. ori brafman says:

    Hey Mike: good question. Here’s how the study was set up: the men and women were in different rooms. The men received fake pictures of women of varying degree of beauty. The real women, meanwhile, had no idea the men were shown any pictures–beautiful or not, and the pictures had nothing to do with how the women looked like.

    So the men and the women talk, and then then the men’s voices were erased, leaving just the women’s voices. A group of neutral observers heard the recording (of just the women’s voices) and indicated via several questions whether the women sounded beautiful.

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