-- You may think that other people act irrationally, but you're too smart and sophisticated. Dream on, say Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman in their brief, summer release, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.
The brothers Brafman — Ori was co-author of last year's hit book The Starfish and The Spider and Rom is a psychologist — demonstrate that education and sophistication do not disqualify you from doing things against your best interest and those of others.
Some irrational acts are harmless. But others can be fatal, as related in two stories included here. Emergency room doctors dismiss the symptoms of a 2-year-old girl because of the behavior of her mother, who brings the child to the ER three days in a row.
On the third visit, the girl loses consciousness and dies. The authors say the ER doctors were swayed by diagnosis bias, the premature labeling of a person or situation that keeps us from seeing what's really taking place.
One of the most compelling stories is about the ill-fated pilot of KLM Flight 4805, Jacob Van Zanten, head of the airline's safety program. He was at the controls for the worst aviation accident in history, in which 583 people died on March 27, 1977, at the Tenerife airport in the Canary Islands. A chain of events leads him to hurry a takeoff that he shouldn't have made in the first place, crashing into another Boeing 747 on the runway.
Some of the book is based on interviews conducted by the Brafmans, one of which is with Dan Ariely, author of the best-seller Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.
Others come from published case studies and psychological research. It's when you read the notes section, where they detail their research, that you realize you've entered a different world. They cite journals reserved for professional specialists, the type of reading most of us do not have on our nightstand: Pediatric Endocrinology Review, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and British Journal of Psychiatry, to name a few.
Other irrational pitfalls awaiting us, even if we think we know better:
•Value attribution. That's when first impressions sway you into not recognizing the inherent worth of someone or something. An example is based on a Washington Post story in which the famous classical musician Joshua Bell, dressed not in concert attire but in jeans and a baseball cap, plays his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin to unsuspecting and unimpressed subway riders in Washington, D.C.
•Loss aversion. The authors claim Capt. Van Zanten fell victim to this one. A perceived loss — in his case a blot on his safety record — helped caused him to attempt his fatal takeoff. In the economic sphere, the thought of a price increase or a possible loss can cause us to do irrational things like sign up for a cellphone contract that costs too much.
The Brafmans are amiable guides to their subject. After reading this book you'll think twice before your next big decision. And next time you're in a hurry and about to do something rash, take a deep breath and remember Capt. Van Zanten.