Friday, January 16, 2009


Sway: the Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior
2008 Ori and Rom Brafman
185 pages, plus notes and an index

I'm not quite sure how I found this one, but it was a fun little read. The authors -- brothers -- begin by asserting that while we think of ourselves as rational creatures, we're actually more irrational than we'd like to admit. Even those whose livings depend on them thinking in a rational manner -- scientists, for instance -- can be trapped into thinking in irrational ways. These "traps" are subtle: people are never really aware of them, hence their danger. Throughout the book, the authors use news events and other examples to show these irrational traps, and then to identify them. The book is very informal and quite readable, as well as thought-provoking. The authors don't use any complicated terminology, as they might be tempted to were they writing a more serious academic work. Two particular traps they identify -- just to whet your appetite -- is an obsession with stopping loss. When our plans are thrown off schedule, we tend to do everything in our power to get back on schedule, never taking time to ponder the situation and realize that the effort is perhaps futile. We see various examples of people trying to avoid the loss of time or money, only to lose more time and money in trying to recover their initial losses. One of these efforts ends with the deaths of several hundred people. Another interesting trap is what initial appearances do for us.

This book is a very interesting read, and I recommend it. The book doesn't seem to have a lot of structure to it, though: you won't find any neat introductions and summaries like in Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things. Even so, it's an enjoyable read.

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