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Book review: Smart people swayed into doing stupid things

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

By Ori and Rom Brafman

Doubleday, $25

It's Monday night and I'm about to do something stupid and ironic.

Instead of reviewing a book about irrational behaviour, I add my own chapter. I go for a bike ride. As my wife points out, "it's dark. It's going to rain. What are you, an idiot?"

Sadly, yes. By my second lap around Bayfront Park, the sky's one monster-sized cumulus nimbus cloud. On the third lap, sheet lightning turns to bolts. Thunder starts rumbling. The temperature drops. The wind picks up. The air smells like ozone.

Now, rational folks would think "a thunderstorm's coming so I'd better head home". But I think "I've pedalled all the way here. I'm only halfway through my regular route. I can't turn back now."

Besides, I'm not alone. The park's full of anglers catching carp. Brave bathers doing the Sheila Copps splash.

Exhausted parents and their tireless kids. Couples in love. And a bunch of partygoers crowding the path directly ahead of me.

I brake way too hard and, for the first time in 35 years of bike riding, sail over the handlebars. I crash at the group's feet. "Dude!" they say, like I've just auditioned for the next Jackass movie. "Are you all right?" someone asks, in a tone that reminds me of the one my parents used when a disoriented senior showed up on my folks' front porch, asked to use the bathroom and then refused to come out until her daughter came knocking during a frantic neighbourhood canvas.

I'd answer the amused onlookers if not for what feels like a 1,500 pound gorilla sitting on my chest. I can't swear. Can't crack a joke. Can't get up fast enough and pretend I do this all the time.

Back on the bike, I think about doing the loop around the Canada Marine Discovery Centre and the HMCS Haida. But I'm not that irrational. So I head home one-handed. The rain starts falling as I peddle alongside the Desjardin Canal. And then gale force winds turn the rain into walls of water not unlike the ones that hammer you on the whirlpool jet boats at Niagara Falls. I'm not sure whether I'll get killed by a tornado or the lightning that's crashing around Cootes Paradise.

Soaked and safely home, I do an hour's worth of work and try to call it a night. But the gorilla shows up again and starts twisting, jerking and squeezing my arm. So off I go for a six-hour wait, X-rays, a splint and some Advil. I'm not sure what hurts more. The sprain and hairline fracture or yet another "I told you so" story that will only get better with each retelling.

The Brafman brothers — one's an organizational expert and the other has a Ph.D. in psychology — rhyme off the psychological forces that derail rational thinking and lead otherwise rational people to do stupid things. "We're all susceptible to the sway of irrational behaviours. But the better understanding the seductive pull of these forces, we'll be less likely to fall victim to them in the future."

These forces include loss aversion, value attribution and a diagnosis bias. "We experience the pain associated with a loss much more vividly than we do the joy of experiencing a gain." In short, we overreact to perceived losses. And the more meaningful a potential loss, the more loss averse and more irrational we become. Anyone who's tried to push through organizational change knows this sway all too well.

Commitment is another closely linked sway. We stick with the tried-and-true and refuse to let go, even when we know things aren't working. Few of us are willing to admit defeat.

Put loss aversion and commitment together and you get biz school students shelling out $204 for an ordinary $20 bill.

Harvard Business School prof Max Bazerman runs the $20 auction in his negotiations class. The auction has two rules.

Bids must be made in $1 increments. And the runner-up must honour her bid while getting nothing in return. Bidding starts fast and furious. Everyone wants to make an easy buck. Most students see where the train's headed and stop bidding at the $12 to $16 mark.

Yet without fail, the two highest bidders lock themselves in. Bidding passes the $20 mark, hitting $50, $100 and the record-setting $204. "Now, neither one wants to be the sucker who paid good money for nothing," explains the Brafmans about otherwise smart students behaving irrationally. "They become committed to the strategy of playing not to lose."

In all the years Bazerman's run his auction, he's never lost a dime (he donates all proceeds to charity). "Regardless of who the bidders have been, they are always swayed. The deeper the hole they dig themselves into, the more they continue to dig."

Irrational behaviour cannot only leave you paying $100 for a $20 bill. Take our diagnostic bias. When meeting new people, we default to mental shortcuts and make snap judgments that can distort objective data. While this may not be a big problem at dinner parties, it can cause you no end of grief during the search for new hires. Most managers serve up unstructured "first-date" questions during job interviews that lead to less than objective and accurate first impressions.

Why's this a problem? Researchers have found only a small correlation between first-date style job interviews and future job performance. "You've got a very limited time exposure, applicants put on their best show, managers put on their best show, and — not surprisingly — you just don't see the realities of the person in 20 minutes," says professor and job interview researcher Allen Huffcutt.

Instead of first-date questions, ask Joe Friday, just-the-facts questions. "The idea is to focus on relevant data and squelch any questions that invite the candidate to predict the future, reconstruct the past, or ponder life's big questions," say the Brafmans. Stick to questions that yield important and objective insights directly related to performance.

Better yet, administer aptitude tests and ask for work samples. Once you've got your shortlist of top candidates, use interviews to sell prospective employees and get them excited about joining your ranks.

There's a whole lot more here and the Brafmans do a great job of taking some of the mystery out of why otherwise rational people do some truly stupid and unpredictable things, whether it's on-the-job or on a bike trail during a thunderstorm.

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