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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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