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Book Review: Sway PDF Print E-mail
Written by Pete Kloppenburg   
Friday, 05 September 2008 20:01

For good or ill, Malcolm Gladwell has created his own publishing category with his books The Tipping Point and Blink. These books have achieved the gold standard of publishing success: not only massive sales, but wide pop culture cachet. Both book titles have become short hand epithets for bloggers, newspaper columnists, and dinner party bores the world over. Gladwell himself has achieved a level of celebrity - he's a highly coveted and presumably highly paid speaker - that mere mortal writers can only dream of. 

Of course many of these other writers have been hard at work on their own entries to the Gladwell category. (Will Gladwell's bookshelf niche become eponymous? Will we someday soon say things like "Have you read Seth Godin's new gladwell?") One recent gladwell of some note is Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, by Ori and Rom Brafman.

Sway's status as a gladwell is beyond dispute. The title schema is unmistakably Gladwellian: the single word with the expository subtitle. The cover design has a familiar sparseness and natty use of typefaces. And in case anybody wasn't picking up on these telegraphed messages, the very first  blurb on the back cover explicitly compares the book to those of the master himself.

Inside, the brothers Brafman demonstrate their mastery of the gladwell genre. Chapters come with titles like "The Hobbit and the Missing Link" and "In France, the Sun Revolves Around the Earth". Each idea is cleverly introduced and explained with the help of a compelling story. The first chapter features a doozie - a veteral KLM airline pilot, an expert on safety, losing his patience while waiting for clearance to take off, and making an epically bad decision that killed him and everyone else on board the plane - 584 people in total. It's a horrifying story, and as the Brafmans trace out his presumed decision-making process, one cannot help but to wince in recognition. We've all made dumb decisions under the malign influences of stress, deadlines, ego, and pure frustration, but of course we never suffer such devastating consequences.

But the Brafmans aren't going to let us off that easy - they follow it up with a much more quotidian example of the stock investor chasing a loss. This is a story just about any but the most blessed investor can identify with: watching a valued stock drop and then rebound slightly, and instead of selling and taking a reduced profit, hanging on in the hope that the stock will recover to its old levels so that we can sell it at the price we firmly believe it is worth. I have personal experience with that, too painful to relate here, but the comparison between the stock example and the KLM pilot is devastating.

The rest of the book never quite climbs to such heights of drama, but it does a fine job of introducing an important set of ideas through stories that demonstrate their fine points. In true Gladwell fashion, the examples and discussion tend to have a certain business orientation, not surprising given that Ori graduated from Stanford B-school. Rom, on the other hand, is a PhD in psychology, which provides a good grounding and a sheen of authority for the ideas presented in Sway.

Sway covers some very important ground for both those who would sway others and those who would be on guard from being swayed. As a marketing resource it is limited but not useless. The insights covered here have been covered elsewhere, generally in more academic language. For instance, the Prospect Theory of Kahneman and Tversky is well represented. I like their approach of bringing academic studies into practical use.

Probably the chapter I found most interesting was one called "Compensation and Cocaine". It tells of a particular form of irrational behaviour that is of critical importance these days. The basis of the chapter is a study conducted in Switzerland regarding the location of a nuclear waste facility. The Swiss government conducted a survey, asking citizens whether they would approve of a storage facility in their town. When the question was asked purely in the context of citizens making a reasonable sacrifice for the greater public good, just slightly over half of respondents agreed that they would allow such a facility. The survey was then run again, this time with a monetary compensation included, in the hopes of lifting the approval rating.

Instead, the approval rating dropped by half.  Essentially, the results said that public good plus money is less desirable than public good alone. Brafman & Brafman go on to support this finding with other similar findings, and then explain it with a bit of neuro-anatomy. Essentially, they say, the brain uses two very distinct areas to process altruistic gestures like sacrifice for the public good and charity and acquisitive gestures such as those that would earn us money.

And the kicker is this: these two brain centers cannot function both at the same time. That is, we cannot get jazzed about helping others and helping ourselves at the same time. We'll probably just revert to the profit motive, and all the altruism will vanish. Which is perhaps something to think about if you are a PBS station running one of those inevitable fundraising campaigns - are those "free gifts" that go along with donation commitments at various levels actually helping matters much? 

More importantly, public campaigns to encourage green choices have largely tried to have it both ways, describing how switching to energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances will save the world AND save money. Perhaps this is simply the wrong approach. At the very least, these arguments should not be mixed in the same message. Talk about saving on the hydro bill in one message, and reducing the carbon footprint in another, but not both at the same time.

In any case, the Brafmans' new gladwell is a very interesting book, filled with excellent theory and examples, and very well written.

Soon I will review Think, which is not merely another example of a gladwell, but an explicit rebuttal to Malcolm. I'll examine how well that goes.