I have a new book club! I'm very pleased; I hope it works out well. The club is reading Sway: the Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman. Very readable! I don't know if the examples of studies given are all completely accurate (I'm not going to research the book that stringently), but the ones they give are quite fascinating.

Some notes for myself: apparently our psychological undercurrents are both much more powerful and pervasive than we realize, and they can converge cumulatively in our heads, becoming ever stronger. This is something worth keeping in mind, especially since they make really foolish action appear rational and necessary. The book lays out the various hidden factors involved in making poor decisions neatly and cleanly, with nice illustrative anecdotes. I'm writing them down here so I remember them:

  1. loss aversion: concentrating only on avoiding losses instead of focusing on maximizing gains. Also: the more meaningful a potential loss is, the more loss averse we become.
    Reduce the price: consumers buy a bit more; increase the price: consumers cut back by 2.5 times.
  2. commitment: finding it difficult to change or let go even when things clearly aren't working; staying the (self-damaging) course due to past commitment.
    "This is the way we've always done it."
  3. value attribution: imbuing something with certain qualities based on perceived value rather than on objective data, and ignoring subsequent contradictory data.
    "He's playing violin in the subway, so even if he sounds like a virtuoso, he can't really be any good," and "We got it discounted, so it can't be as good."

Various things which amazed me: the NBA draft selection order (which is a crap shoot — Michael Jordan wasn't top ranked) being treated as critical information even five years later — rather than how good the player's actual game stats were during that time! Another doozie: having a single word change how people are perceived, via value attribution! The example was a substitute professor introduced with a descriptive bio/handout. One of the sentences in half the handouts stated he was "very warm" vs. the other half saying he was "rather cold." Later questionnaires showed half the students loved him and the other half found him far too reserved.

Fascinating review of job interviews as being like a first date, leading to the "mirror, mirror" effect: you want to hire someone just like you, since your idea of the perfect job candidate is non-consciously influenced by your self-perception. However, you'd actually be better off hiring someone very unlike you, so your weaknesses are covered by their strengths, and vice versa. Don't ask "forecasting" questions — ask about specific job experience and job-related hypothetical situations — or just use an aptitude test! These types of tests and/or structured interviews (as opposed to the 'first date' type) are six times better at predicting future job performance. Use the unstructured interview to get the chosen applicant excited about the job.

A verification of something I'd long suspected: people react the way they're treated or labeled. It's referred to as the chameleon effect in the book. An example: if a guy believes a woman on the phone is lovely, he talks differently. She non-consciously picks up on it such that a recording of the conversation examined later causes new experimental subjects to also identify the woman as beautiful — simply by her voice and demeanor! Note to self: do not let anyone else label me.

Also, people with negative feelings about aging literally physically aged faster! I knew one's attitude matters, but that's a doozie of verification. Another interesting physiological reaction: anxiety and adrenaline heighten romantic interest.

At this point the book shifts focus slightly, from 'sway' involving multiple individuals and/or disasters, and more toward 'sway' involving personal behavior. The focus seems to be on the difference between the 'rational economic actor' postulated in textbooks, and how people actually behave. There is an examination of "fairness" which demonstrates how culturally based notions of 'fair' are, followed by the experiment where, without any contact with each other, one person divides up a chunk of money while the other can either accept or refuse the suggested amounts, for both of them.

The hypothetical 'rational economic entity' would accept any division, since it's free money. Western cultural notions of fairness, however, cause the vast majority to indignantly refuse anything less than a 60% – 40% split. Interestingly, this works only if the money divider is believed to be a person, or no contact is allowed between the two individuals. People don't expect fairness of a computer, for example; and when someone explains neediness, most people are willing to take a smaller slice.

As they note in the book, it is the process, not the outcome, that causes us to react irrationally — what they call "procedural justice." To give this feeling of fairness, you need to keep people involved in the process. If someone feels their voice has been heard, they'll consider even arbitrary decisions as more fair.

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