Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Sway of Irrational Behavior.

Here is a very thorough review of the popular book, Sway: The Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman. The psychiatrist-reviewer, Dr. Grohol lays out the core of the Brafmans' book in a clear and succinct manner, so I won't do that here. The gist of the Brafman brothers' argument is that humans are subject to irrational urges and fears which overwhelm their critical faculties, often at the most innopportune moments. No matter how reasoned and logical we think we are, we are not.

Of course, from the standpoint of Evolutionary Psychology this makes perfect sense. Since we are, after all, simply high-functioning cognitive predator-animals, it would make sense that we resemble hot blooded mammal predators in our decision-making processes.

Through several entertaining anecdotes, the Brafmans illustrate many of these irrational tendencies, such as overreacting to impending losses, and falling prey to diagnosis bias by acting as is expected of us.

Many of these "sways" are already known to most people as oft-heard maxims and proverbs. Value attribution, where people imbue something or someone with certain qualities based on perceived value rather than on objective data, is a concept well-known through the sayings, "take someone at face value," or "don't judge a book by its cover." Diagnosis bias refers to the power of a first opinion; we all know how difficult it is to see past our own first impressions and reconsider things upon learning new information; this is why we have the saying, "first impressions last."

It is likely (again, purely my guesswork) these behaviors developed in humans because they conferred survival value to those who displayed them. If I were to guess, I would suggest that, in a world of limited information such as in the small-group, tribal existence of nomadic plainspeople, one must learn to assess quickly whether others can be trusted, or should be feared. And holding on to a first opinion is probably wise when life is often violent and brutal and a single mistake can be one's last. In such a tooth and claw world, it is no surprise that irrational, or highly emotional, behavior held sway on humankind.

Given the likely source of these irrational impulses, I have to agree with Dr. Grohol that the weakest part of the book is the last chapter, where the authors suggest ways to overcome these tendencies. The solutions suggested by the brothers Brafman really amount to little more than an exhortation to do better, with little reason, and no proof, that we as a species can.

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