The Stone Boat and Other Irrational Behavior

By , December 11, 2009

Last year I read what still seems the most important book I’ve read in a long time. The book is Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman (available through your local bookstore).

The Brafman brothers, one an economist, the other a psychologist, have written a very brief, very engaging book about the common mistakes in judgment people make. The brothers take what could be a very dry subject, and turn it into a series of vignettes that hold the reader’s attention, and ultimately explain the ways we behave irrationally, why we behave that way, and how to avoid doing so in the future.

This book is important to me personally because I engage in irrational behavior quite often.

First, let me point out with pride, that according to the brothers Brafman, I actually avoid a lot of the pitfalls of irrational behavior to which so many people fall prey. I came away from the book feeling superior to the common rube. However, I recognized my own failings in several of the stories the book relates, failings that more than make up for those that I have somehow avoided. My particular failing is “loss avoidance,” becoming so focused on a project that is not succeeding that seeing it through becomes even more important than self-preservation.

A few years ago a storm washed a stone boat onto our rocky beach. A stone boat is a type of sled that used to be very common. This vehicle moved rocks from place to place, dragged on the ground behind horses, mules, people, and later, tractors. This particular stone boat was made of sheet metal with a wooden frame. It was old and beat up, too damaged to be repaired and used. It was also heavy and ungainly, too difficult to drag up or down the rocky beach. We needed to dispose of it, and the best way to do that appeared to be to float it on the outgoing tide farther down the beach, where, free of the land, it could be towed with a neighbor’s power skiff to the bay and taken to the dump. The tides were at the top of their cycle, lending urgency to getting it away from the high tide line before the tides trended lower again.

Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Not so. At that time of year we weren’t able to launch our rowboat and tow the stone boat to deeper water to be anchored. I planned to place an anchor at low tide, then pry the stone boat off the beach and float it out with the next outgoing tide.

As you read this, no doubt many other ways of accomplishing this goal come to mind. Many options occurred to me as well, but this solution seemed simplest. It’s the one I chose, pursued, and eventually fixated on to the exclusion of all others.

It became a several day project. Each day I judged the flow of the tide, and at the perceived “right moment” begin pushing the boat off the rocks with a series of long poles—usually branches or small trees washed up on the beach. They often broke at bad moments, requiring replacement. Repeatedly, I decided the project wasn’t working, and wasn’t worth the effort, stopped, but then returned to the task, redoubling my efforts.

Eventually, disaster struck. I got the right angle, fulcrum and pressure on my pry bar yet again, and threw my weight into levering the stone boat off the rocks. Suddenly, the bar slipped, I lost my balance, and made a perfect forward somersault into the icy water! I submerged completely, then arose, dumbfounded not only by the instantaneous change in my condition, but also by the fact that I had somehow miraculously avoided splitting my head open on the rocks!

Once I’d climbed ashore, I realized that I had our digital camera strapped to my belt. It never worked again. The stone boat, as ever, floated quietly a few feet offshore, waiting to ground on the rocks once again.

The stone boat is long gone. Shortly after my dunking, a storm washed it out to sea, beyond our reach. Its legacy remains in the admonishment I hear just about every time I step out the cabin door, on my way to tackle a big project.

“Don’t stone boat it,” my family warns. It has become shorthand for working too long and hard on a project, losing sight of seeking other possible solutions—for falling into the irrational behavior of loss aversion.

This warning has kept me from doing some foolish things. Hopefully, Sway will reinforce that, having taught me the reasons why I do the silly things I do, and how to avoid that sort of irrational behavior in the future.

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