Book Review: Sway – The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

We love irrational behavior here at Neuromarketing – when humans act in illogical and unexpected ways, that behavior provides clues to their real motivations. This understanding may, in turn, also help marketers develop products and promotions better suited to the real needs and desires of their customers. Plus, it’s fun to write about the funny things we rational humans do in real life.

With that prediliction, I could hardly resist Sway, written by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman (Doubleday). It’s a quick read – the text runs just 181 pages – but there are plenty of examples of how irrational we can be. While there aren’t many chapters or examples that apply directly to topics of interest to marketers, all of the content underscores the danger in assuming that people will behave in a rational way.

One amusing chapter is titled, “In France, the Sun Revolves around the Earth.” In it, the authors relate how in the French version of the TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the audience deliberately misled the contestant who polled them for assistance. Although I’m hardly a frequent viewer, I’ve never seen that happen on the US version of the game. Are the French simply perverse? Perhaps not. The authors attribute the behavior to the human tendency to fairness. In this case, the contestant seemed to be a dolt who was incapable of answering a painfully obvious question – “What revolves around the Earth?” None of the audience suggested Venus, but 2% offered Mars as the answer. 42% of the audience gave the correct answer, the Moon, but fully 56% of the audience urged to contestant to choose the Sun. This contestant clearly didn’t deserve to win a million dollars (or euros), and apparently the audience chose to hasten his departure from the game. Oddly, Russian audiences often misled contestants, apparently because of a different attitude toward wealth: in the U.S., wealthy people are, by and large, assumed to have earned their assets. In today’s Russia, wealth is suspect and presumed to have been gained at the expense of others.

Other entries in the same chapter include a discussion of the Ultimatum Game, in which one player is given money that must be divided with another player. The second player must accept or reject the split, and if he rejects it neither player receives any money. This has served as a classic illustustration of irrational economic behavior. Theoretically, the second player should accept any split, since any money is better than none. In fact, players often reject splits perceived as unfair. The Brafmans point out cultural variations – the most economically rational group turned out to be members of a remote and isolated Peruvian tribe, where the splitter tended to keep most of the money and the other player accepted whatever was offerred. Subjects in most developed countries, by comparision, would accept only more even splits, with some rejecting anything less than 50/50.

There’s some interesting content for business people and managers in Sway. One chapter deals with preconceptions and the failings of the traditional job interview process. Another, Compensation and Cocaine, deals with how behavior is affected by pay. Oddly, the much lauded “pay for performance” model doesn’t always have the expected behavioral effects.

Another useful topic for managers is how “sway” can affect decision making. A strong leader or group consensus can lead a group into poor decisions when those who know better go along with everyone else. This has been demonstated by simple research showing that a subject will answer a simple question incorrectly when the rest of the group chooses the incorrect answer. The Brafmans cite procedures used by organizations ranging from the U.S. Supreme Court to commercial airlines to avoid groups being swayed into bad decisions.

In some subsequent posts, I’ll expand on some of the other interesting findings in Sway, and how they apply to marketing and business topics. Readers who enjoyed Predictably Irrational will find Sway a little less packed with research findings, but still interesting.

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