The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

Brafman - Sway

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we are going to feature Dr. Rom Brafman. He is the co-author of a very popular best-selling book called, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior. He holds a doctoral degree in psychology. He wrote the book with his brother Ori who is an organizational consultant. We’ll find out a little bit about how they came up with this and how they work together.

He is interested in topics of resilience, empowerment, and transformation and their manifestation in individual and interpersonal dynamics. He is also interested in decision making, which is a lot of what this book is about. The decision making process and the psychological forces that underlie rational behavior.

Dr. Brafman is in private practice in Palo Alto. Dr. Brafman, welcome to the call.

Dr. Rom Brafman: Thank you, it’s great to be here Relly.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Let me say a little bit about your brother who you wrote this book with. He lectures internationally in front of Fortune 500 government and military audiences. He is also continuing his lifelong commitment to helping nonprofit causes by serving on many boards. One is A Home Within, and Plexus Institute. Ori enjoys facilitating interpersonal dynamic groups for business leaders and he holds an MBA from Stanford. So Rom, a licensed psychologist and Ori a MBA from Stanford so a really nice combination.

When they teamed up to write Sway, they say it was one of the easiest decisions that they ever made. They collaborated on other writing, and why this collaboration works so well; Ori is a national storyteller. In ancient times he would have been the guy sitting around the campfire relating legends.

Rom, weaves in psychological insights in ancient times and he would have given advice and interpreted dreams.

Their cooperation goes back a long way. In elementary school they picked each others brains when they had to come up with creative ideas for projects. In high school, they used each other as sounding boards for advice and making tricky decisions. In college and graduate school they shared anecdotes from their respective fields, business and psychology, they bounced ideas back and forth to come up with theories talking late into the night, and this laid the foundation for Sway.

So Rom, let’s jump in with this and ask a little bit more about the relationship with you and Ori. Not every sibling gets along so well, but it sounds like you two do. Maybe jump in from there about just this collaboration with you and Ori.

Dr. Rom Brafman: I think like every brother relationship we had our share of conflict and brotherly rivalry during our early years. But once we started college and started really looking at each other not only as brothers but also as friends, we saw that we make a really good team together. That we were able to look at each other’s blind spots and be able to compliment one another.

What happened with the book writing is that neither one of us really saw a career in writing when we first started out collegiate careers. Then almost reluctantly, my  brother got pulled into this writing project when he wrote his first book, The Starfish and the Spider. As he started writing it, I kind of joined along and we saw that our collaboration together worked really well. The things that we do, and maybe because we are brothers, we can be really blunt with one another and say, but what about this and what about that, and as a result of that I think it helps us get to the good stuff on a deeper perspective.

I bring in the psychology element, you know I’m a psychologist, and my brother is the MBS so he brings in more like the business perspective. So a lot of times we would have conversations and he would say something about a business situation. Then I would say, well, psychologically, how about this element. And then he would go, oh, how would you relate it to this. Then I would say well, psychology seems to me this way, what about the business thing, and then before we know it, after 2 or 3 hours of conversation, we have this new model way of seeing things and that’s also what led us to want to write Sway together.

Dr. Relly Nadler: This is just fascinating. Your book is fascinating. Between you and Ori, who is the older one?

Dr. Rom Brafman: I’m the older one. I’m two years older than he is. I remind him of that every time that we get into it.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Exactly what you are saying; I’m a psychologist also, and when I first started my company, True North Leadership, for about seven years I had a partner who was an MBA. So just exactly like you are saying, they compliment. It’s almost like you look at the same situation with two different sets of eyes, but which are very complimentary.

Dr. Rom Brafman: It’s very interesting that when you say something that you’ve known for years, and for the other person it’s like, wow, I never thought about it that way. Then vice versa, they will say something, and I would say I didn’t know it was like that. So all these new worlds open up.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Now where were the two of you raised?

Dr. Rom Brafman: We were born in Israel in a suburb of Tel Aviv. We write in the introduction that growing up our Mom always looked up to Laura Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie fame as an inspiration for what her kids would be like; very respectful, very thoughtful. We lived up to some of those and some we didn’t. But there was always a sense of the adventure, the knowledge, of being able to look at things from a new perspective. When I was 11 we moved from Israel to El Paso, Texas, of all places, because my father went there to complete his engineering degree.

That just opened up the door to a whole new cultural experience. We had culture shock for a while. But it really helped both of us look  things from different perspectives and question a lot of assumptions of why people act certain ways and specifically what is rational and what is irrational. Something that would have been completely fine in Israel, all the sudden was inappropriate to do in Texas. Or vice versa.

It really gives us a really nice way of being able to observe the world from different angles.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I could certainly see that especially the enculturation and I think as we get into some of the principles that are in your book, Sway, people learn certain things and then it’s hard for them to change. So you were thrown into a whole other environment where you were forced to not only adapt, but then probably also question and wonder why.

Dr. Rom Brafman: Yes. I initially was overwhelmed, but the good thing that came out of it is not only did we get a whole new cultural experience and appreciation for the Mexican American culture, and the Texan culture, but also to be able like if somebody throws me off, to be able to say, okay, I’ve been thrown off before, and it can actually be a really pleasant experience afterwards. You look back and you say wow, look how much I have learned and how I can see things differently.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Where did you go to school for your doctorate?

Dr. Rom Brafman: I went to the University of Florida, to their Counseling / Psychology program, and had the privilege of working with Dr. Franz Epstein who’s my advisor. I learned a lot also about human communication and how to use power effectively. You talk a lot about emotional intelligence, and I think that even psychologists take that for granted. Emotional intelligence is so powerful. How do you use your power as a leader, as a therapist, as a business leader even, in a way that is emotionally intelligent and also humanistic and helpful?

Dr. Relly Nadler: We always like to ask folks who have been some of your most influential people for you as a leader or as a thinker about human behavior?

Dr. Rom Brafman: Two people come to mind. One of them was my graduate school advisor and his name is Franz Epstein. What he taught me is to view another person’s reality from the other person’s perspective.

A lot of times we meet people and we say, you know what? I may agree with you on this topic, but I really disagree on that topic. When we look at it even further, we say, how could anyone hold this belief system? How can you really think that? What Dr. Epstein looked at was the different constracts that people have. All of us have different constracts. All of us see the world in slightly different ways. Sometimes it is not so slightly different.

One of the things I learned that has stayed with me is when I interact with people and I don’t see things from their perspective, to really force myself to put myself in their shoes and say, if I had to get inside of their head, how would I make sense of the situation? How could I understand the world from their perspective? Even if I disagree with the way that they are saying things, just the process of doing it helps me understand them better and helps me understand myself better rather than just sort of branding them or labeling them as they don’t get it, or they are ignorant.

That is just something that comes up on a daily basis for me as a psychologist and therapist. It’s really useful. Then for the other person, then they are saying wow, this person really gets me and they are able to see where I’m coming from.

Dr. Relly Nadler: One of the things that we talked about and one of the key things that you are alluding to here, is just around empathy. When you break that down this idea of understanding others perspective. Then when we teach empathy to leaders; just like you are saying—how you understand and see others perspective—you actually have to say their perspective. It’s usually a play on words, but to see someone’s perspective, you have to be able to say their perspective. Otherwise, they keep giving you their perspective until they know you’ve got it. The only way they know you’ve got it, typically, is when you can say it.

Dr. Rom Brafman: Exactly. It’s almost like you have been reading my mind here, Relly, because the other person I was going to mention was Carl Rogers.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Okay, good.

Dr. Rom Brafman: He’s one of the first people to really come out and advocate for empathy. That goes exactly with what you are saying, that we underestimate. We routinely underestimate the power of empathy. Whether I work with clients or whether I talk to my friends or to business people, when somebody really feels like oh my god, this person gets me, you really get an entrance path into their world. They start opening up, they start being real, their defenses go down. It’s pretty easy to do it. To be able to listen and to be able to relate it back and make sure you get the other person.

We take it for granted. So a lot of times we don’t even realize that we are not being empathic.

Dr. Relly Nadler: It’s a great skill, because what we are trying to do for our listeners, which are many folks and organizations, is giving them some tips. I think in your training and my training, but for any leader or a coach, that empathy is so important.

We talked a little bit about one of the values of Barack Obama, and I think just like your saying from going from Israel to Texas, and then Florida. The sense of empathy that he has by being biracial, by being bicultural; if you listen to what is it. He constantly is telling people what their perspective is. I got it. I know you don’t agree with me. I know right now the Republicans may not go along with this. It really does take the wind out of a lot of the arguments. I think otherwise, you keep getting their perspective.

Dr. Rom Brafman: Completely, right. Because if we placer ourselves in the shoes of Barack Obama, it would be really easy to get frustrated and to lash out on the other side, and just say, they are being bad, they are causing things to get stuck, and they are being difficult. But that only creates even further problem.

It’s really difficult, whether it’s in the office or working with a family, or anything, to be able to step aside and to say okay, I may disagree with you, but I get your point.

Dr. Relly Nadler: That’s good. Your advisor, and then Carl Rogers, especially what we are talking about with some of the empathy. Let’s talk a little bit about your book Sway. How did the ideas of that come about? I know that you have that in some of the introduction stuff. Maybe you can let our audience know, as well as this collaboration with your brother that I’m very interested in. Did you each write parts of it or just do it all together?

Dr. Rom Brafman: The origins of it started in graduate school while Ori was getting his MBA I was getting by Ph.D in psychology. Any time there was something interesting that we would learn in the class or anything we would see that a professor would say, we would call each other up late at night share that information.

One of the things that we found, one of the common denominators, was that a lot of the interesting things were about why people react irrationally. What causes otherwise perfectly logical, perfectly competent people to make irrational decisions? My brother would come in and say, look, there’s a case of an airline company that would let it’s planes just operate without a good braking system. Obviously, there were a lot of problems caused by that. What were they thinking? Then I would start scratching my head and saying, how does that tie in to what I’m learning about psychology.

We never thought that those conversations were going to lead to a book, but after we graduated, all the sudden, the opportunity presented itself to say, well, let’s delve into that. Or, let’s see what other people have been saying. Let’s see what we know and let’s look at all the stories and examples and anecdotes and research since we’ve been together.

This is a fascinating discussion. You can listen to the entire interview above!


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