The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior
Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman
Doubleday, 2008, 223 pp., ISBN 978-0-385-52438-4
The authors suggest we are not nearly as rational as we think. In fact we are often influenced by irrational psychological forces. And the repercussions can be devastating. Throughout the book they provide stories that illustrate various kinds of influences and describe when and how we are vulnerable and how it affects our careers, relationships, finances, and our lives.
One type of vulnerability they call "loss aversion." Jacob Van Zanten, the head of safety for the airline, was captain of KLM Flight 4805 when it crashed, becoming the worst aviation disaster in history. The hidden currents of psychological forces converged. His story demonstrates how avoiding a loss can blind us to biases in our diagnosis of situations.
When the price of eggs goes up, sales decline totally out of proportion to the price increase. If the price goes down, that's nice, but when the price goes up, customers simply put them back on the shelf. Why? We experience the pain of loss much more vividly than the sense of gain. People buy insurance contracts and loss damage waivers on everything. Why? They begin to sense how much they will lose if something should happen. We develop an "aversion to loss" that influences us beyond rational proportions.
The pull of commitment causes us to pour more and more into hopeless causes. Once we have invested, we are very reluctant to pull out. We tend to "stay the course," when it isn't working, even when it is doomed! "The deeper the hole they dig themselves into, the more they continue to dig."
The war in Vietnam is a good example. Once LBJ was in, he felt obligated to try to win, even as the prognosis got worse and worse. When looking a potential loss in the face, we hope against hope it will turn out OK and we redouble our investment and determination, our resolve to stay the course. To withdraw is a sure loss and deeply unattractive, so we stay with the plan in the withering hopes of recovery.
Viewing artifacts through the lens of evolutionary theory has influence scientists to jump to unwarranted conclusions and to deny well founded claims that do not look like what was anticipated. More than once scientists have hailed a "new species" as the "missing link," because they were looking for one.
We also tend to "attribute value" to something or someone based on illogical premises. When Joshua Bell, dressed like a street person, played the violin on the sidewalk at a subway stop, almost no one stopped to listen, even though he is a highly accomplished concert violinist. Everyone assigned his value on the basis of his appearance and could not "hear" his music to the contrary.
When we encounter a new object, person or situation, we assign it a value and we often compromise our rationality in doing so. A vendor in a large city could not get his hot dog stand established so he hired doctors to eat his hot dogs. Business picked right up. Somehow people associated the doctors with the quality of his food!
We have a diagnosis bias. We tend to label people, ideas or things based on our initial opinions of them and then find it very difficult to reconsider our initial judgments. Once tagged, they carry the label forever. The perception sticks. Even a simple change in wording of a casual introduction can change perceptions. Once a label is stuck in your mind you don't notice the things that don't fit.
We are overly confident of our ability to predict and overly optimistic about the future. And we ignore evidence to the contrary. NBA players drafted higher in the draft almost inevitably get more minutes of playing time per game throughout their career than those drafted lower, in spite of the actual numbers of points, rebounds, and assists per minute played. The draft position fixes value in the minds of the coaches.
Strange things happen in groups. Reasonable thinking can be distorted and compromised by group pressure. We are all tempted to align ourselves with the group. Unanimity is especially powerful influence on a lone dissenter. But the presence of a single dissenter makes it possible for others to operate independent of group sway. Often the opinion of the dissenter somewhat changes the response of the majority.
Organizations leaders have a difficult time overcoming their earlier commitment to a plan, project, or product that is failing. To overcome this commitment bias, ask, "If I were just arriving on the scene would I jump in?" If no, then we have been swayed by hidden forces of commitment.
It is very important for employees to feel they are active participants in their evaluation of their performance. They are more likely to feel they are treated fairly if supervisors solicit their input to the evaluation and use it in the process. It is important to keep others apprised of our decision-making process, to communicate what we're thinking. It is also important to give voice to the dissenter.
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