Today, I spoke with Ori Brafman, who is the New York Times bestselling author of Sway. We spoke about how people are swayed to make the wrong decisions, what influences our professional and personal lives and “value attribution,” which is how much value your employer places on your head. I hope this conversation sways you to make some better career moves 🙂
Ori, in general, why do people make the decisions that they do, whether in business or in their personal lives?
Ideally, we want to make decisions based on sound reason and concrete data. But of course, that’s not always the case, especially when there’s a lot on the line or when we’re feeling stressed. That’s when we become increasingly more vulnerable to the influence of a host of psychological forces that makes us more likely to act irrationally. And by irrational I mean choices that are not in our best interest.
This process is largely unconscious. We don’t even realize we’re getting swayed. Then in hindsight we look back and ask, “What was I thinking? How come I made that decision?” And what we talked about in the book is that it happens to all of us, even the best trained professionals.
What are is one dynamic force that influence our personal and business lives?
One of the most powerful and intriguing forces is what economists call ‘loss aversion:’ people’s tendency to feel the pain associated with a loss twice as intensely as the joy ascribed to an equivalent-sized gain. In other words, we’re much more sensitive to losses than we are to gains. In the book we tell the story of airline pilot Captain Jacob Van Zanten, who was the head of safety at KLM airlines.
Van Zanten was flying a routine international flight from Holland to the Canary Islands, when he was told he had to land in a small island airport because his original destination airport was closed down for the moment. Van Zanten’s plane, along with several others, landed in a small local airport. Van Zanten knew perfectly well that unless he could get his plane back in the sky soon, he would be stuck on the ground overnight. That’s because the crew’s mandated rest period (legislated by Dutch law) was coming up. Staying grounded would be a logistical nightmare. Besides dealing with flight delays, there weren’t enough hotel rooms to accommodate all of the passengers.
So Van Zanten was determined to do everything he could to get his plane airborne. The potential loss associated with the logistical delays hung heavy on Van Zanten’s mind. When Van Zanten was finally issued clearance to take off, he noticed that the fog was beginning to roll into airport. Acting fast to dig himself out of a hole, Van Zanten decided to take off, not realizing that he had not been issued clearance from the tower. Unfortunately, when Van Zanten’s plane was gaining speed on the runway he saw the scariest sight imaginable: there was another plane parked on the runway. Van Zanten tried to avoid it by taking off early, but the two planes collided, resulting in the greatest air crash disaster in aeronautical history.
Van Zanten was so preoccupied with doing whatever he could to avoid a loss that he made a huge rookie mistake. And that’s what happens to us when we experience loss aversion. We go into one of two extremes: either we overreach and take on greater risks in order to make up for the initial loss, or we become completely paralyzed and unable to take on any action. You see that with the stock market, that investors either frantically trade to make up for losses or just get that deer-in-the-headlights look trying to digest what’s going on. It’s really difficult to remain collected when there’s a nagging loss tugging at you.
Why do we listen to advice just because it came from someone ‘important’?
It’s called “value attribution,” our tendency to ascribe high value to something that is highly prized or priced.
There’s a story about Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs, that when he first sold them on Coney Island the going rate was 10 cents. But he wanted to undercut the competition so he decided to make top-notch hotdogs from the finest ingredients, but sell them for only 5 cents. Well, no one bothered to buy them. Everyone was suspicious. People thought, “If he’s pricing them that low, there must be something wrong with them. I wonder what ingredients he uses.” Well, Nathan came up with a marvelous solution. He recruited doctors, dressed in white coats, come and eat his hotdogs, and then people said, “OK, if doctors are eating these, then they must be fine.”
So, yes, it’s important to pay attention to the source, but we usually pay too much attention.
Again, it comes down to value attribution—what value employers put on potential candidates. It turns out that managers are terrible at conducting job interviews. They rely on irrelevant data, and ignore all data that contradicts their initial “diagnosis.”
The thing to remember is that we can affect what “value attribution” people ascribe to us. And in the long run, that makes a huge difference.
Your book is a NY Times bestseller. What went into your promotional plan and what obstacles did you endure along the way?
I think of audiences in terms of verticals (e.g. entrepreneurs, general readers, HR professionals, etc.) Once you segment the likely readers, the question is how to best reach them. Traditional media, of course, plays a huge role. But so does word of mouth, and so do specialty blogs/newsletters that may not have huge readerships—but that appeal directly to the specific audience.
I find that it’s surprising what verticals end up being drawn to a specific book. You have to be open to the fact that a book might reach an unlikely audience.
Ori Brafman has been a lifelong entrepreneur in business, government, and the nonprofit sector. In 2001, Ori co-founded a network of more than 1000 CEOs working for peace and economic development projects. Most recently, Ori has facilitated a course at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
He is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior. Ori’s first book was called The Starfish and the Spider. Ori has appeared on BBC, National Public Radio, Wall Street Journal/MarketWatch video, CSPAN, AP Video, and National-Cable-Radio among others.