Book Review – Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

Book Review – Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

  • September
  • 03
  • 2015
  • Dan Boedigheimer

The book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior reminds me of the writing style of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in their books Freakonomics, Surperfreakonomics, and Think Like a Freak. Similar to Levitt and Dubner, Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman use behavioral economics as a lens to explain what seems like irrational behavior. In addition, they mix in how social psychology and organizational behavior influences decision making. Why is this important to pilots? Because our everyday behavior can be explained in a new paradigm.

When reviewing aviation accident reports, I read about decisions made by flight crews that, in hindsight and knowing the results, have me scratching my head wondering why. After pondering the situation, I can typically recall a similar decision I have made in the cockpit that did not have the similar tragic result. Our success in making less-than-ideal decisions influenced by time pressures, mission expectation, and taking the easy road of noncompliance only makes us more vulnerable to make similar decisions in the future.

A friend gave me the book Sway because it included an analysis of the single most deadly aviation accident in history, the runway incursion in Tenerife. That accident has been widely used in case studies for communications, runway incursions, and authority gradient. When I picked up the book, I wondered what new perspective the authors would bring to this decades old accident.

In the book, Ori and Rom Brafman correlate the decisions made by Captain Jacob Van Zanten (captain of the KLM aircraft at Tenerife) to a consumer's decision making in the egg and orange juice section of a grocery store. Read the book for more details, but their analysis indicates we react stronger to a potential loss (not completing the mission) than feel satisfaction to experiencing a gain (complete a trip in less time than expected). When faced with a potential loss, we are at a greater risk of making an irrational decision.

My only criticism of their analysis is the use of quotes from the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) that don/t match the official accident report transcript. There may be varying translations from Dutch to English, but it was enough of a distraction to make me wonder what other details they may have missed in their analysis.

Another gem in the book is Chapter 8, which details the power of a dissenting opinion in a group. The authors tell a story about the Supreme Court and the value of at least one judge not agreeing with the majority. This can be applied to aviation, both in the office and the cockpit. Having at least one person offer an alternate solution or idea and discussing that as a group improves our decision making. So keep an open mind and, time permitting, solicit active input from the rest of your crew to get the full benefit of crew resource management.