The Art of Resisting Irrational Behavior

Originally published
Originally published: 11/1/2008

When you’re tuned in to why you’re responding a specific way to a situation or a person, you’re likely to make better decisions for yourself and for your business.

An age-old question that small business owners face is, “Why do intelligent people occasionally make bad choices?”

“Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior” examines the reasons for such behavior and the psychological forces at play when we wonder “Why did I do that? If only…” This is an interview with one of the book’s authors, Ori Brafman, who talks about what to be aware of when assessing candidates for jobs, the right way to transform a company’s bad reputation, and customer communications.

1. Question: Cutting to the chase, why do smart people do dumb things?

Answer: We are all affected by psychological forces that trigger irrational behavior. The interesting thing is that we make irrational decisions without ever realizing it.

One of the stories we look at is the case of Captain Jacob Van Zanten, a brilliant pilot who was the head of safety at KLM airlines. He was so highly regarded by his colleagues that few felt comfortable criticizing him. But being smart and talented doesn’t preclude us from making bad decisions.

When Van Zanten’s flight was redirected, he had to land his plane on a small island. Van Zanten was falling behind schedule, and he began feeling antsy about getting back in the air. His fear of losing time got the best of him. He hurried his plane down the runway, never validating whether he was clear to go.

Unfortunately, Van Zanten’s plane collided with another aircraft that was parked on the runway, leading to the largest airplane collision disaster in aviation history. Part of the problem is that Van Zanten was smart—he trusted in himself too much and neglected to question himself or take others’ criticism to heart.

2. Question: Knowing what you know about first impressions, how should companies conduct job interviews?

Answer: Job interviews are really tricky. The most surprising element of researching “Sway” was finding out just how tricky interviews are. It turns out that most job interviews are terrible predictors of actual performance.

The reason is that we form an opinion of a candidate and then ignore evidence that contradicts that initial impression.

Because we’re so likely to misdiagnose, a much better alternative to the normal job interview is to prepare prescripted questions that focus on a candidate’s actual experience.

Questions like “Where do you see yourself five years from now?” and “What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?” aren’t very useful. Instead, focus on specifics. Say you’re hiring a web designer. Does her portfolio match the style you’re looking for? Is she up to date with her knowledge of web standards? What’s her Dreamweaver skills?

It’s assessing those on-the-job skills that helps hiring managers stay on focus and not make irrational decisions based on initial gut reactions.

3. Question: How can a company turn around a bad reputation—i.e., when powerful negative sway factors already exist?

Answer: The best thing to do is to own up to what went wrong and start off on a new path. There’s nothing worse than avoiding the big elephant by not addressing prior bad acts.

You saw Netflix do great with this when their delivery system collapsed. They immediately took responsibility, alerted their users and offered a refund for those affected. We all make big blunders from time to time, and the best thing to do is to step up and own responsibility.

It’s just like on the basketball court: You throw a bad pass, you point at yourself and say, “My bad,” and then others can trust you.

4. Question: How can we prevent— or at least reduce—the amount of dumb things that we do?

Answer: Don’t take risks based on emotion. If you’re feeling worked up— tense, angry, impatient, ecstatic—take some time before you send off that email or make that crucial decision to go with a product or project.

Ask yourself, “Could I possibly regret this a day from now or a week from now?” And if the answer is yes, it’s better to wait.

People also make dumb mistakes because they don’t think of the big picture or don’t take all the data into account. During hard times, a company can cut down on marketing, even though it needs marketing more than ever—but the loss associated with the expenditures takes over rational planning.

Another thing that happens is that people continue to make the same mistake over and over again because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” It’s the fallacy of staying committed to a course and believing it’s the best one just because it’s been the chosen course in previous times.

The antidote is to stay open-minded to emerging possibilities and to ask, “If I had to start clean today, would I still be choosing the same path?” If not, then it’s worth your while to re examine your decision.

5. Question: Explain why staying in touch, even if for no good reason, seems to increase the level of satisfaction between parties.

Answer: We all like to have a voice and feel we’re taken seriously. Studies have shown that people are perceived as more reliable and effective when they communicate frequently.

For example, entrepreneurs who keep in close touch with their VCs are perceived to be doing a better job. The frequent communication doesn’t mean sending out annoying emails or spam, but rather keeping people in the loop.

“I just finished doing this and that. I’m going to start working on this project.”

People love being included. It makes them feel important and it makes them feel like they’re part of the team. When we’re quiet, people assume—incorrectly many times—that we’re not staying on task and that we’re not being as productive and studious as we can be.

6. Question: So are you saying that if your product sucks, as long as you stay in touch with customers, they might be satisfied?

Answer: The worst thing in the world is having an awful product and a company that never returns your calls or emails. So even if your product has some flaws in it, if you can work on fixing these flaws but stay in touch with the customers and let them know what you’re doing, the steps that you’re taking, and then follow up, then you’re working to re-establish trust.

7 Question: Let’s say that you’re a good person with a good product, what actions can you take to ensure that you sway as many people as much as possible—that is, to become a world class swayer?

Answer: Impatience is your biggest obstacle, your biggest challenge. We want to see instant results, and if we have a great product but no one else seems to notice, we say, “Oh well, we tried, but no one’s getting it. Let’s move on.”

It’s about determination. If I have a plan, I need to stick with it. I can make changes if necessary, but it’s about seeing the big picture and having the patience to wait it out. If I’ve sent out emails and told my friends and I’m not selling many units, OK, that means I need to start the second wave. And after that the third wave. Many successful people are not necessarily the best in the field, but they’re the ones who had the courage and discipline to really stick it out.

If you know what you have to offer is quality stuff and you keep communicating that, chances are that sooner or later people will take note.

8. Question: By the way, who do you consider—in terms of companies or people—to be the best swayers in the world?

Answer: My top three are:

  • Robert Cialdini. He literally wrote the book on how people are influenced. Much of my thinking about this book had its genesis in a class I took from him back at Stanford Business School.
  • Richard Branson has an uncanny ability to build brands that feel like friends. Fly Virgin airlines and you feel like you’re part of the family, like they care and they listen.
  • And, of course,Twinkies. Not exactly high tech, but you have to give it to the company that can sell a food product with a shelf-life of a hundred years. I don’t know what their secret was, but it works.

There are provoking business ideas in Brafman’s insights. If more information and more input make better decisions, then the web can help you make better decisions. If you educate your customers, they can also make better decisions, and they will “pay” you with their loyalty. And customer loyalty is everything for a small business.

Guy Kawasaki is a managing director of Garage Technology Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm and a columnist for Previously, he was an Apple Fellow at Apple Computer Inc., where he was one of the individuals responsible for the success of the Macintosh computer. He is the author of eight books, including his most recent, The Art of the Start, which can be found at


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