Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

5.03.2010

2 x 2 = 5

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, by Ori and Rom Brafman

Much like Predictably Irrational, which I recently read, Sway is concerned with the ways we consistently act irrationally. The Brafmans use a mix of real life illustrations and sociological research to illustrate their points, coming from the fields of business and psychology. They offer enlightening and frightening insights into human behavior, why we do the stupid things we do, and ideas for being a little less stupid.

Because I read this right on the heels of Predictably Irrational, I can't really review this book without mentioning that one. There is enough overlap (the Brafmans even cite some of Ariely's research work) that I couldn't help but think of the other book to make comparisons, and the knowledge I'd gleaned from the other book made this one at times seem too common sense. This one is also slighter. But having read the other one didn't make this one less valuable because it takes a slightly different approach to things.

An example. I've shared feedback at work that I don't care for the practice of rewarding those who take the time to complete trainings and surveys with the chance to win gift cards in a drawing. It makes me feel like I'm being bribed our bought, that I'm motivated to do such things because it's the right thing to do and adding prizes somehow soils the purity of my participation. Both books explore this dynamic. Both include the example of asking a friend to help you move. Most of the time, friends are happy help do so as friends. But if you offered to pay them $10, they'd feel insulted and much less likely to help. They might accept $100 or what they consider a fair wage for their labor, but they'd rather do it for free than an insulting amount.

Ariely describes this dynamic in terms of social vs. market norms: So we live in two worlds: one characterized by social exchanges and the other characterized by market exchanges. And we apply different norms to these two kinds of relationships. Moreover, introducing market norms into social exchanges, as we have seen, violates the social norms and hurts the relationships. . . . when a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time.

The Brafmans approach the dynamic through brain science, looking at the physical response to the different exchanges: It's as if we have two "engines" running in our brains that can't operate simultaneously. We can approach a task either altruistically or from a self-interested perspective. The two different engines run on different fuels . . . It turns out that when the pleasure center and altruism centers go head to head, the pleasure center seems to have the ability to hijack the altruism center.

Almost identical statements to describe the same thing, but coming at it with very different approaches. And now I have multiple ways of understanding why I don't like being motivated to do things I'm personally invested in by drawings and gift cards at work.

Perhaps because I recently completed a leadership program and have been thinking about the topic, I also feel Sway has more to say about the idea of leadership and highly recommend it for leaders and managers. I’ve long been a proponent of the power of expectations, but each time I come across new illustrations and data I’m still blown away. Consider one (of many) from this book, describing the results of a commander training program in the Israeli military. The trainers were told the trainees had been pretested and had either “high,” “regular,” or “unknown” potential. This was a fabrication and the labels were randomly assigned. Still, when the trainees were tested at the end of the program, the average score for the “high” group was 79.89, the “unknown” 72.43, and the “regular” 65.18. The only variable was the expectations of the trainers, yet those expectations determined reality.

Another realm discussed is the idea of fairness. The researchers concluded that auto manufacturers and business managers alike “place too great an importance on margins and outcomes” when what was clearly more important to the customer was the perceived fairness of the process. They recommended that all managers—regardless of industry—put greater “effort, energy, investment, and patience” into nurturing the relationship. As the car dealer study suggests, how we are treated—the fairness of the procedure—has as much to do with our satisfaction as the ultimate outcome. And: But it turns out that regardless of the crime they committed or the punishment they received, respondents placed nearly as much weight on the process as they did on the outcome. . . . In other words, although the outcome might be exactly the same, when we don’t get to voice our concerns, we perceive the overall fairness of the experience quite differently. I know there have been many decisions I didn’t like that I’ve been able to accept once I felt like my disagreement had been heard and acknowledged.

One more. As someone with a tendency to play devil’s advocate and really consider ideas before getting excited about them, this one resonated with me. The idea that in group dynamics there are four roles: initiator, blocker, supporter, and observer, and that blocker is a necessary and important role to balance the initiator and blind group think. Whatever the situation, be it the cockpit or the conference room, a dissenting voice can seem, well, annoying. And yet, as frustrating as it can be to encounter blockers, their opinions are absolutely essential to keeping groups balanced. It’s natural to want to dismiss a blocker’s naysaying, but as we’ve seen, a dissenting voice—even an incompetent one—can often act as the dam that holds back a flood of irrational behavior.

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