Books: Sway

December 7, 2010 |  by

by Ori and Rom Brafman, 2008

With the title Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, this book promised a lot to me. After all, what do memes do but sway our behavior? But this isn’t a book on memes. Instead of group influences, it’s more about our own personal irrationalities – limitations we have no one to blame but ourselves.

The main themes of Sway aren’t revolutionary: that “loss aversion” leads us into error, that “value attribution” clouds our perception (virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell gets ignored playing in a baseball cap in a subway station – people assume he’s just another busker) and that “diagnosis bias” is alive in the medical profession (explaining the 40 times (!) rise in bipolar disorder cases from 1994 to 2003).

But – as usual – insights on memes are between the lines. Take loss aversion. Sway opens with a captivating story: the 1977 crash of KLM 4805 on take-off from Tenerife. Captain Jacob van Zanten, desperate to get his already long-delayed flight airborne, neglected clearance from the tower and slammed into a parked Pan Am sitting in the runway fog (killing 584 people). What made the error so incredible was that van Zanten was KLM’s head of pilot training – a 27-year veteran of the airline. He’d even appeared in a magazine ad that declared: “KLM: from the people who made punctuality possible.”

According to the Brafmans, van Zanten was desperate to avoid KLM delays.

As meme-mappers, we have to ask:

Was his desperation his own – or the influence of a meme?

Few pilots would have been as immersed in the KLM meme as van Zanten. Would a rookie pilot, with limited connection to KLM, have taken such a risk? In fact, it seems it was precisely van Zanten’s deep association with KLM – the merging of the meme’s priorities with his own – that caused him to risk everything to make “punctuality possible.”

In feeling strong impulses, it’s helpful to ask:

Is it me – or is it the meme?

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