Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior Ori Brafman has previously co-written The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations along with Rod Beckstrom. The book was excellent, and I used it in the preparation of my chapter for the first Wikiklesia project, Voices of the Virtual World. I’m sure I’ve mentioned both here before, and my past experience had me looking forward to Ori’s new book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, written with his brother Rom Brafman.

The book makes something of a complement to Malcom Gladwell’s Blink and The Tipping Point. The book is well-written and doesn’t fail to hold the reader’s interest as the Brafmans explain how someone’s judgment is swayed in various contexts.

Most applicable in a business context, the opening chapters cover irrational commitment to a strategy, the impact of context or price on value judgments, and “playing not to lose” rather than playing to win or to realize profit. For each, the book offers examples. Not quite news perhaps, but still helpful is the documentation of the phenomenon that once committed to a strategy or an ideal outcome, people tend not to want to change course until it occurs. If circumstances change so drastically that they would no longer expect the same outcome by freshly applying the strategy, they remain committed to it. The classic example is the investor who wants to sell a stock at a certain level of profit, but holds when the stock begins to plummet, all the way to the bottom… even though if he were evaluating purchasing the stock somewhere during its freefall, he would quickly reject the idea as foolhardy.

Still, I think here of the church and commitments to outreach strategies which are no longer effective. In these contexts, the power of sway might be best summed up with six little words for which the church might be (in)famous: “We never did it that way before!” This kind of thinking can keep us in the rut of bad strategies.

The middle/late chapters get more into the types of behaviour and situations that tend to produce sway. Several experiments are cited which illustrate the subject being swayed, and then specific factors are changed with the result that the rate at which the subject is swayed is noted. For example, subjects in a test were prone to give an obviously incorrect answer if all the other subjects (actors, in this case) gave the wrong answer. Having a lone dissenter seemed to break the power of this kind of sway, even if the dissenter gave a different wrong answer or was portrayed as incompetent.

The Brafmans cite the example of “The Devil’s Advocate,” giving the origin of the phrase as arising from the selection of each new pope, where one cardinal is appointed to argue against the nomination, simply to ensure that a countering viewpoint is heard when all others might be in favour of the nomination. This type of dissenting voice, even if not convincing, is enough to break the power of sway and draw out any dissenting viewpoints which might otherwise go unspoken. The application is clear that one should be suspect of decisions which are immediately unanimous. (If I’m not mistaken, this was one of the problems with the trial of Jesus, as a unanimous verdict of death was to be questioned or set aside.)

the concepts of fairness, value attribution, and altruism are explored as well for their respective effects on the power of sway. In chapter eight and in the Epilogue which follows, the Brafmans explore how the Supreme Court ensures that the power of sway does not take over, even if there is only one justice who dissents with a decision. Similarly, commercial airplane crews are trained to avoid being swayed into unsafe actions. The person portrayed as resisting sway is called a “blocker,” and the value of these types of personalities are discussed. Like the “Devil’s Advocate,” in some situations, a person is assigned to be the “blocker” to ensure that an alternate viewpoint is presented, and again, this breaks the power of sway to release the remainder of a committee to adequately consider a decision and objectively take the best course. Here the book becomes quite practical in offering applications for breaking the power of sway.

As the book offers valuable insight into the workings of “sway,” it can be helpful to anyone who participates in a committee or board or who faces decisions in any context. Recommended reading. Available online from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca.

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