We’re Not As Rational As We Think, A Review of “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior”

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior is wonderfully written by two brothers that highlights several areas where we humans are not as rational as we think. It has serious implications for religious believers. Let me explain.

Ori Brafman found himself in a business class with Roberto Fernandez at MIT Sloan, who began the class by saying “People aren’t rational.” His point was that “we’re much more prone to irrational behavior than we realize.” (p. 4). That sets the theme for this book. It’s something psychologists all know about human beings. This book helps the rest of us understand why this is so.

The authors focus on three currents and hidden forces that cause us to act irrationally, “value attrition,” which is our inclination to attribute to a person or thing a certain value based on our initial perceptions, “loss aversion,” which is the tendency to go to great lengths to avoid possible losses, and “diagnosis bias,” which describes our blindness to all evidence that contradicts our initial assessment of a person or situation. In the midst of this they show other ways we’re influenced by the sway of irrational behavior.

About value attrition the authors say: “Once we attribute a value to a person or thing, it dramatically alters our perceptions of subsequent information.” (p. 55) And then “it’s very difficult to view it in any other light.” (p. 56). It is such “a strong force that it has the power to derail our objective and professional judgment.” (p. 63).

About loss aversion the authors say: “The more there is on the line, the easier it is to get swept into an irrational decision.” (p. 22). A closely linked sway is called “commitment.” The more that a person has a commitment to an idea then the more it is virtually impossible for him or her to take a different path. Independently these two forces have a powerful effect on us, “but when the two forces combine; it becomes that much harder to break free and do something else.” (p. 30).

About diagnosis bias the authors say that it “causes us to distort or even ignore objective data.” (p. 75). As such, “we often ignore all evidence that contradicts what we want to believe.” (p. 88)

The authors give us plenty of interesting examples and psychological studies proving that this is what human beings do in ordinary decision making, some of which cost the lives of many people. My argument is that if this is what takes place in our ordinary decision-making, then how much more does this apply when it comes to faith!

When believers first become committed to their faith there is a perceived value of an eternal hope with divine love and divine help. Who cannot help but be pulled by that irrational sway, especially as children in a loving family with authority figures who never learned to think critically about their own faith? Such a value attribution leads to the commitment in the first place, and it likewise becomes difficult to view their faith in any other light. It has the power to derail their objective judgment.

And what could be more on the line than the belief that there is a heaven and a hell? Nothing that I can think of. Believers who make a commitment to faith are therefore much more prone to the irrational sway of loss aversion. With such a commitment it becomes virtually impossible to take a different path than the religious one first chosen.

Then there is the subsequent and lifelong diagnosis bias, which causes believers to distort or even ignore objective data, and to ignore all evidence that contradicts what they want to believe.

This whole pattern fits perfectly. Humans do this in every day ordinary ways. How much do they do so when it comes to their inherited religious beliefs!

The Brafman’s goal is not merely to describe our malaise. They seek to offer us an antidote to the sway of irrational thoughts and behavior. When it comes to these irrational undercurrents the best way to counter them isn’t to follow our instincts because “sometimes it’s our instincts that cause us to be swayed in the first place.” (p. 171).

In the first place we should welcome naysayers and dissenters. The presence of even one naysayer in a room--even if he is wrong, according to Solomon Asch’s experiments--allows other people to think for themselves rather than going along with the crowd. Naysayers keep us grounded, they argue.

We atheists are the naysayers. Most Christians love to rail against us. They do not care to engage us seriously. They love to dismiss us and our arguments. They certainly do not link to atheist sites on their sites (unlike me). They don’t care to read our books either. They are not interested in what we have to say for the most part, they are only interested in arguing against us. This, according to the Brafman’s is considered by them to be wrong headed. Christians should welcome us into the discussion. Some do, especially Randal Rauser in his book, You’re not as crazy as I think. To welcome naysayers means treating us as equal partners in search of the truth. Sure, as the Brafmann’s tell us, naysayers are "a pain in the neck" (p. 162). But if it’s truth you want then the pain is worth it. If believers want to avoid value attrition then they should allow the potential convert to encounter the naysayers before they convert. For it’s that initial commitment of conversion that can and does sway them to ignore all subsequent evidence to the contrary.

The Brafman’s tell us that the way to counter diagnosis bias is to ask this question: “If I were just arriving on the scene and were given the choice to either jump into this project as it stands now or pass on it, would I choose to jump in?” (p. 175). This is similar to what I had previously said when it comes to maintaining one’s faith. Believers must ask themselves if they knew then what they know now would they ever make the decision to convert in the first place? They must re-examine the initial reasons they had when they first made the commitment to faith. What were those reasons? They must ask that question. Do those reasons hold up to the evidence that was initially presented? What evidence was initially presented? Usually none, as in N – O – N – E. Usually what produces a conversion to faith is the gospel story itself and the divine hope and love it promises. There is no discussion about how Jesus was 100% God and 100% man, nor how the death of Jesus atones for sins, nor even what to think about the millions of people who will wind up in hell. So, if you were arriving on the scene when you were first presented the gospel, were you given good initial reasons to believe or not? Would you believe knowing what you do now? Doing so will help believers overcome diagnosis bias, because they will look at what they know now and apply it to what they were told then.

The Brafman brothers close their book by writing: “It is only by recognizing and understanding the hidden world of sways that we can hope to weaken their influence and curb their power over our thinking and our lives.” (p. 181).

That’s a true story! The question is whether believers would rather know the truth even if they might conclude they are wrong. Believer, do you? Ask yourself that question. Would you rather know the truth even if you might conclude you are wrong? Never-mind for the moment throwing that question back at me. I have asked and answered it. That's why I no longer believe. And it doesn't matter what I conclude anyway. You must ask it regardless. Would you rather know the truth even if you might conclude you are wrong?

If so, seek out skeptics to talk to. Go to freethinking groups. Read what we write, not just the sound-bites on blogs, for sound-bites are all we can offer on our blogs. Read our books. Take the 2011 Debunking Christianity Challenge, which includes an additional part to it. Take the Outsider Test for Faith too. See if you can maintain your faith when using the same skepticism to examine your own faith that you use when examining the other faiths you reject.

Again, do you want to know the truth despite the fact that by investigating your faith you might find out you are wrong? Can you handle the truth? ;-) Yes or no?