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June 14, 2008

'Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior'


In the tradition of "Battling the Inner Dummy: The Craziness of Apparently Normal People," this book gets filed under "Books whose titles are irresistible to Kool-Aid lovers like me."

So I dropped $14.93 on it and read it this morning after the papers.

The 15-page-long first chapter, which analyzes the factors that led to the worst airplane crash in history (584 dead at Tenerife, Canary Islands on March 27, 1977, resulting from the brain-dead behavior of KLM Captain Jacob van Zanten — head of the airline's safety program and "... one of the most experienced and accomplished pilots in the world") is worth the price of the book.

The rest is basically a riff on that first chapter, the first 10 of whose 15 pages are here.

If, having read those 10 pages, you don't feel an irresistible need to read the next five pages probing van Zanten's actions that led to the crash, we probably wouldn't do very well sharing a cockpit.

    Excerpts from the book:

    These hidden currents and forces include loss aversion (our tendency to go to great lengths to avoid possible losses), value attribution (our inclination to imbue a person or thing with certain qualities based on initial perceived value), and the diagnosis bias (our blindness to all evidence that contradicts our initial assessment of a person or situation).

    The more there is on the line, the easier it is to get swept into an irrational decision.

    Once you get a label in mind, you don't notice things that don't fit within the categories that do make a difference.

    The challenge takes the form of three steps that all Southwest pilots know by heart. The first step is to state the facts — for example, "Our approach speed is off." If that's ineffective, the next step is to challenge. Generally, the best way to challenge someone is to use their first name and add a quantifier to the fact. "Mike, are you going to make it on this approach? Check your altitude." That will get the captain's attention and bring him or her out of the tunnel vision he or she may be experiencing. It's important to state the fact without being condescending. If these two procedures fail, the third step is to take action. If someone were flying an unstable approach... we would want them to go around. The action [advised] would be to get on the radio and say, for example, "Southwest 1 going around, we're too high." Once you say something on the radio, the tower controller will cancel your landing clearance. And that way the action takes place without physically fighting over equipment in the airplane, which might aggravate the person flying.

    A dissenting voice — even an incompetent one — can often act as the dam that holds back a flood of irrational behavior.


I've long since lost count (must be in the hundreds, maybe thousands of times) someone other than a fellow anesthesiologist has pointed something out to me during a surgical procedure that I'd missed or hadn't noticed, thus helping me avoid problems potentially great as well as small.

Though I'm initially annoyed (who the heck are you to be telling me something? is oftimes my irritated initial reaction) I always take them seriously.

You should too — even if you're not an anesthesiologist.

Like I said, next time you're in a bookstore or library, take a few minutes and read the last five pages of the first chapter of "Sway" — it'll more than repay the time spent.



a computer graphic rendering of the two aircraft involved in the crash just before impact. Van Zanten's KLM jet is on the right.

June 14, 2008 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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