|How We Decide
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The first book to use the unexpected discoveries of neuroscience to help us make the best decisions.
Since Plato, philosophers have described the decision-making process as either rational or emotional: we carefully deliberate, or we blink and go with our gut. But as scientists break open the mind's black box with the latest tools of neuroscience, they re discovering that this is not how the mind works. Our best decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason and the precise mix depends on the situation. When buying a house, for example, it s best to let our unconscious mull over the many variables. But when we re picking a stock, intuition often leads us astray. The trick is to determine when to use the different parts of the brain, and to do this, we need to think harder (and smarter) about how we think.
Jonah Lehrer arms us with the tools we need, drawing on cutting-edge research as well as the real-world experiences of a wide range of deciders from airplane pilots and hedge fund investors to serial killers and poker players.
Lehrer shows how people are taking advantage of the new science to make better television shows, win more football games, and improve military intelligence. His goal is to answer two questions that are of interest to just about anyone, from CEOs to firefighters: How does the human mind make decisions? And how can we make those decisions better?
- Not a how to make better decisions book
Not to be disappointed read this book with the expectation of finding plenty of material that will stimulate your thinking about how you think and make decisions in response to the many complex situations you face in life. But don't expect to uncover any clear-cut rules for making better decisions. Knowledge of the brain as revealed in this book has indeed advanced but not so far that "we" (is that not the brain itself?) can program it (or ourselves) to make superior decisions.
Jonah Lehrer's latest treatise might end up sharing shelf space with books like Freakonomics, Blink, Sway, Predictably Irrational, The Drunkard's Walk, etc -- the bustling agora of texts offering explanations for universal phenomena. How We Decide differentiates itself from the crowd by being better-researched and more carefully written, and by conveying a far higher density of information than other works in the genre. Whereas superficially similar volumes seem like essays padded out to book length, Lehrer's ideas fully inhabit their chapters without wasted verbiage or repetition. His explications of numerous psychological experiments are apt, concise and enjoyable. The book overall strikes an ideal balance between being informative and entertaining, and is easy to recommend to a wide audience....more info
- An interesting read but wait for the Social Psychologists
While we humans too seem to have drives, operate on emotions, plot, connive and plan, and teach ourselves problem-solving skills, calculate probabilities, we remain unique in our ability to weigh options, imagine an outcome and then consciously go about making particular choices. According to this book, it seems that in the end we have been selected out genetically to "bite the bullet" and make decisions, and then to stick with the decisions we have made.
Jonah Lerner, a precocious young scientist, has done what a number of seasoned researchers tried to do in a previous generation: determine how and why man goes about the process of deciding. Once the author thinks his research, based on brain scans, answers those questions, he then tries to communicate that knowledge to us in his own way. Thus in this sense, the book should be seen less a sophisticated academic treatise on decision-making theory, as it is a common sense approach to how man decides based on both biological, emotional and social imperatives - but especially based on the biological imperative as viewed from the vantage point of the most recent brain scan technology.
By using MRIs to get a better handle on the questions of what the brain is doing when we think and decide, Lerner follows in the footsteps of a rash of other recent researchers who have also used brain scan research as a way tracking emotional states to better get a handle on, and to better understand how our thinking processes progress and work. These trailblazers have been expecting to push the frontier of our understanding to the next level. And here I refer specifically to Andrew Newberg (Why God Won't Go Away) and Drew Westen (The Political Brain), but also to a much lesser extent all of Malcolm Gladwell's works, which although they do not involve brain scans directly, do touch on the same areas of research. This is especially true of his book "The Tipping Point," and to a lesser degree also of "Blink" which deals with man's ability to "intuit" things just beyond everyday consciousness.
The reader may recall that both Newberg and Westen also used brain scans to draw conclusions about how and why humans make decisions in certain ways and under certain circumstances. The mistake these two authors made, which unfortunately the current author seems to have repeated, is to push the conclusions a bit farther than current scan research will safely allow. In all three instances, a great deal of the results of the scan research depends on how "well-defined" the subassemblies of brain functions are; and how well these can then be correlated with corresponding descriptive "emotional" (or in this case, "decision-making" ) states. So far, there is a sizable gap between "monitoring blood flows" revealed in brain scans and "correlating" them with specific well-defined higher-level units of mental functioning and processing.
Despite this, what sets this book aside is the that it finesses this issue rather artfully by turning away from the importance of these critical connections to a selected set of interesting testimonials and narratives of heroic decision-making under uniquely stressful circumstances. These stories are often backed up by alluding to the neuroscience and the findings in recent brain scan research. Lerner covers in some detail the structure of the brain and the way it is affected by dopamine. Altogether it is a decent review of where we stand in contemporary brain research. And while these are interesting and revealing examples, for the serious reader, they do not in any way go far enough in filling the gap between what the scans tell us, and what we know about the human condition beyond the neuroscientist's operating room.
But more importantly, I believe the author stretches his analysis beyond what is reasonable when he attempts to generalize from these well-worn prototype examples of rather sterile and non-emotional human behavior (always under uniquely trying circumstances). Even though it is true that the author strays away from being prescriptive and tries to remain informational and exciting, using the narratives as a "hook," I believe it would have been even more interesting to use more mundane ordinary examples as "hooks" to illustrate the same points. Nevertheless, there is a wealth of useful information, if a mite retreaded, here if the reader understands carefully what current brain scans can and cannot tell us about human behavior.
Three Stars...more info
- Very Enjoyable Reading
Lehrer is a good wordsmith and made reading this book an enjoyable experience. I learned new research on the brain's reasoning centers and how they are easily fooled, causing us to make decisions based on illogical factors. This book will help everyone understand their thought processes and their decision making.
I am a great fan of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. As such, I appreciated the author filling in some of the missing pieces that was left out of Gladwell's book.
I believe we can all learn something new from the practical lessons that are born from this new neuroscience.
Continued research in neuroscience and behavioral economics will continue to revolutionize our understanding of human decision-making. As the field progresses, it would be my desire that Lehrer will once again explain what it all means and how to fit it into our reality.
I hope you find this review helpful
Michael L. Gooch - Author of Wingtips with Spurs: Cowboy Wisdom for Today's Business Leaders
- Reason versus Emotion in Decision Making
Plato versus Aristotle. Reason versus Emotion. These are some of the opposing forces in decision making, according to author Jonah Lehrer. At the outset, he notes what is at stake in this eminently readable volume (Page xvii): "How does the human mind make decisions? And how can we make those decisions better?"
He begins with a simple example, Quarterback Tom Brady throwing a key pass on the winning drive to Troy Brown in the Super Bowl. How did he make the decision to throw to Brown? Reason can't explain it; he didn't have time. Lehrer argues that through experience gained over time, he "knew" that he could make the throw. Emotion based on experience did the trick.
One of the unique aspects of this work is the use of knowledge from the brain sciences to make sense of human decision making. While many of the examples in this book come from other works on decision making (e.g., books by Klein and Ariely), he employs what we know about how the brain works to make sense of what goes into decision making. Not surprisingly, he sees a role for the neurobiology of emotion as well as the executive function in the prefrontal cortex.
Key point: there are occasions for which the rational part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) is best in decision making; at other times, we ought to let our "emotions" (or intuition) guide our behavior. He uses examples of pilots saving the day by ignoring rationality and going on the residue of their experiences over time. He does a nice job balancing the two and noting circumstances in which one might prefer to use reason and when might select emotion as guides to decisions. He also does a good job of pulling a wide set of distinct literatures on decision making together--from Kahneman and Tversky's "heuristics" approach to neurophysiological approaches to. . . .
The book closes with a series of lessons about decision making. I won't give the book's conclusion away, but a couple examples serve to indicate the kinds of lessons he draws from his analysis of the evidence. (1) "Simple problems require reason" (Page 244); (2) "You know more than you know" (Page 248).
All in all, this is quite well written and does a good job pulling a large body of work together. Some issues: On page 7 football fans might wonder at his description of Quarterback Vince Young as "excelling in the pros" (Page 7). Sometimes he seems to come close to reduction of a lot of human behavior to dopamine or brain centers. Surely, the brain and its functioning are important parts of a larger picture, but there is a larger picture. Nonetheless, in the end, this is a welcome book for the general audience who desire to know more about the complexity of decision making.
- What everyone should know
This book provides information that allows the reader to understand our inner processes in deciding everything that we encounter, from buying a house to understanding an adolescent and everything in between. We have an opportunity to grow personally with this information-- an opportunity to understand and evaluate the behavior of ourselves and of others. Although the information is scientific, his stories make it easy to understand....more info
- Brilliant, accessible, life changing
It takes an exceptional writer to translate cutting-edge science into understandable, interesting and practical knowledge for those of us who would like to live better, and Jonah Lehrer is truly gifted at it.
In "How We Decide", he takes the latest information about what is going on in our brains -- how the neurons and chemicals actually work in them, and actually explains why the old rational/emotional dualism that has come down to us from ancient times is not only wrong, but misleading for those of us who want to think better.
Among other things, he uses enjoyable common examples, such as how the best pro quarterbacks make their decisions, and what is actually going on in their brains as they react. He looks at other issues such as the tendency of Parkinson's sufferers under treatment to revert to gambling addiction, and explains how slot machines are designed to manipulate our decision making areas of the brain.
A conscious awareness of the wiring of our brains does give us some hope for avoiding manipulation and maintaining control in our rational processes.
If you want a book to not only enlighten but entertain you and help you understand yourself in your day to day affairs, this is such a book. The prose is lively, and the examples are quite likely to provide you with an entire quiver of interesting annecdotes for your next dinner party.
- So Interesting!
An absolute gem of a book! It's incredibly well-paced and succesfully interweaves stories and science. I'll never look at my credit cards or stock portfolio statements or poker decisions the same way again. It's a really balanced overview of decision-making and I thought much better (and much more interesting) than a lot of of the other books out there on similar subjects....more info
- Get to know the prefrontal cortex
Jonah Lehrer writes about man's fascination with the brain and how decisions are made. With each case study presented in the book, readers may find out how the mind works and all the complexities that go into making choices that many people make everyday. But the unique aspect about discovering how the brain works with all its quirks, nuts, and bolts that help make it function, the process is somewhat of a collaborative effort that involves not only one making that actual critical decision but the actual physical elements that comprise the brain, the prefrontal cortex and its function and how one reacts in terms of reason and emotions.
HOW WE DECIDE is not an intense scientific study but it is one that any lay reader will find insightful. Lehrer delves into everyday occurrences that one may come across through social interactions and the act of how to decide; all the issues and topics examined are presented as they relate to how people relate to their brain when it properly and at times, does not function at times. Lehrer presents positive and negative results when the brain helps to make decision for an individual, and may also open one's eyes to how future decisions will be made.
The book is very enlightening and accessible. Indeed, this is yet another thought-provoking piece of work that may make one wonder why and how a person reaches a final decision or stops and thinks before making a critical decision.
- Interesting, informative, engaging -- the best brain book I've read
The brain has been the hot topic of a number of books lately from Buyology to Daniel Pink's work and others. These books, while helpful, do not engage or inform the reader the same way as Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide. This book is a unique combination of brain science, popular culture and clear explanation that was a pleasure to read. Here is why:
How We Decide starts from the premise that the traditional separation of reason from emotion is incomplete and in fact we are decisive because we connect both sides of our brain. Lehrer illustrates this idea with stories of people who have had to make quick decisions, build strong decision making skills or face tough choices. Those stories are then backed up by a review of the neuroscience that covers the structure of the brain to the functioning of dopamine, etc. Presented together the reader gets an understanding of what has happened and what is happening in the brain.
Lehrer then builds on the emotions + reason = decision equation to talk about failure modes where emotions run amok and reason is the only way the person can think. These stories follow the same pattern as the opening discussion and provide greater insight into the way the brain works.
Overall this book is a rare combination of science that is interesting and entertaining. I would almost go so far as to say that it would be a great Book Club recommendation for those clubs who want to discuss more than fiction.
So a recommended read that opens the mind to how it thinks, while engaging your attention. The best book on the brain I have read in a long time -- at least I think so....more info
- Must Read
I've recommended this book to essentially everyone I have talked to since I was 50 pages in. After finishing the book, my conviction that it is a worthwhile recommendation has only increased. ...more info
- A Great Read
Lehrer combines applicable, real world examples to show the more complex neuro workings of the brain in understandable language. From Tom Brady marching down the field with seconds left, to the Concord Monitor editorial board's struggle to choose who to endorse in the primaries, Lehrer effectively provides insights into the brain and the choices we make so that those even without a background in neuroscience can reflect both on the choices that shape society and the choices that shape their lives. ...more info
- A Fascinating Read
First things first - I am no brain surgeon, nor am I well-read in the subject of neuro-science. But this book has certainly piqued my interest. Not only is the author a master story teller, he makes even the complicated science appear as simple as his stories. He relates the scientific experiments on a level that is easy to grasp and appreciate.
Mr. Lehrer made me want to learn to play poker and read more about the Yom Kippur War. He made me feel as though I were in the same war room and cockpit of his focal subjects. From sports to politics, Mr. Lehrer knows how to keep his audience tuned in. This is a must in a book with as much specific scientific information as this one.
Science can be a complicated and technical subject - he has made it as interesting and as simple as Bill Nye the Science Guy (only for adults). But more than just taking a deep, complicated subject and making it simple, he made it relevant. This is not just a book about brain chemicals that has no bearing on life. This book is about life and the decisions we make in it. Beyond its simplicity and excitement, the book is practical. In fact, Mr. Lehrer even takes the time to summarize his research into a concluding section on how to apply these things in our everyday decisions.
For those who are well-read in this area, I do not know how much this book will help you. But if you are someone who loves to learn new things and to get a glimpse into how your mind works, this book is a must-have. It will help you better understand yourself, your children, and those around you when it comes time to make decisions.
- Cautionary Tale
We think as humans, and in fact are taught in school as if it were true, that we are rational beings. That we think carefully about all decisions, weight the alternatives and make the best choice among many. Neuroscience has in the last ten years told us more about what is really true about ourselves and it is not pretty. And it is not something most of us will go research because it is too difficult to interpret for the lay person. That is where Jonah Lehrer comes in. Jonah is one of the brightest young thinkers to come along in a long time. I have hear him speak, chair panels and read about everything he has written. He is brilliant. He digests it all and writes in a way you can be well cautioned and informed about yourself, your business and even why we govern ourselves so poorly sometimes.
He illustrates, backed up by extensive research, how our brain cannot comprehend the risks we are asked to consider now days and why compulsive behavior, such as gambling, results from this shortfall in our human functions. And why we can know more than we actually know. You read that right. For example, how can we know that we know something, but cannot remember it at the moment. And we know that we can significantly improve our performance on something if we study what we do wrong, thoroughly and completely. But we have to force ourselves to do this since we seek to avoid unpleasantness. So we have to override some functions to do better. Without this ability, we do not get better. You will understand yourself a lot better after reading this book and perhaps trust yourself less. But if you are a leader of others,or aspire to be, you had better understand what Jonah can teach you about that organ called the brain and YOUR effect on everyone around you with your decision-making process.
You may think you have read everything there is no know on Decision-making. Unless you have read Jonah, that is far from true. This cutting edge science applied to your everyday life--at work and home...more info
- Beware of arriving at inappropriate conclusions from the research
I have kept up with the literature on neuroscience so I already had alot of background information on this topic before I read this book. I found the information very interesting and enlightening and well written. Unfortunately, some people have taken the information and arrived at the very pessimistic conclusion that humans have no ability to delay instant gratification so we are all doomed to fail in solving long term problems that require sacrifice. They have failed to miss the author's point that those who have an under-developed "executive control" center of the brain have less of an ability to resist instant gratification as opposed to those who have mature executive control centers (the executive control center of the brain is not fully developed until the end of puberty and the study mentioned in the book was done on children with marshmellows). ...more info
- Interesting Book
The content of the book is interesting and very information. The book delivered as I was expecting. Although I have not finished listening to the entire book (over 10 hours, each segment is 30 minutes on average), the audiobook is easy to follow and fasinating. I did have a few problems loading the audiobook on my MP3 player but that was because I did not read the instructions....more info
- A brilliant analysis of "the power of the emotional brain"
With regard to neuroscience, I am the among non-scholars who have a keen interest in what the brain and mind are and how they function, and am especially interested in how decisions are made. In recent years, I have read a variety of books that have helped me to increase my knowledge in these specific areas. They include William Calvin's How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now, Gerald Edelman's Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On The Matter Of The Mind, Guy Claxton's Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, Howard Gardner's Five Minds for the Future, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and most recently, Torkel Klingberg's The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory. I am grateful to these and other volumes for increasing my understanding of the decision-making process while realizing that is still so much more that I need to know. Hence my interest in Jonah Lehrer's book, How We Decide.
In the Introduction in which he shares an experience aboard a simulated flight landing at Tokyo Narita International Airport, Lehrer observes: "In the end, the difference between landing my plane in one piece and my dying in a fiery crash came down to a single decision made in the panicked moments after the engine fire...This book is about how we make decisions. It's about airline pilots, NFL quarterbacks, television directors, poker players, professional investors, and serial killers...[Ever since the ancient Greeks, assumptions about decision making have revolved around a single theme: humans are ration.] There's only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: It's not how the brain works...We can look inside the brain and see how humans think: the black box has been broken open. It turns out we weren't designed to be rational creatures...Whenever someone makes a decision, the brain is awash in feeling, driven by its inexplicable passions. Even when a person tries to be reasonable and restrained, these emotional impulses secretly influence judgment...Knowing how the mind [i.e. `a powerful biological machine'] works is useful knowledge, since it shows us how to get the most out of the machine. But the brain doesn't exist in a vacuum; all decisions are made in the context of the real world."
Then in the Coda, Lehrer re-visits the approach into the Tokyo airport that, we now realize, serves as the central metaphor in his book. "When the onboard computers and pilots properly interact, it's an ideal model for decision-making. The rational brain (the pilot) and the emotional brain (the cockpit computers) exist in perfect equilibrium, each system focusing on those areas in which it has a comparative advantage. The reason planes are so safe, areas in which it has a competitive advantage. The reason planes are so safe, even though both the pilot and the autopilot are fallible, is that both systems are constantly working to correct each other. Mistakes are fixed before they spiral out of control." The safe landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River on January 15th offers a more recent example of what Lehrer calls "perfect equilibrium" between Captain Chesley ("Sully") Sullenberger and the computers aboard the Airbus A320.
There are many valuable insights within Lehrer's narrative. Here are several that caught my eye, albeit quoted out of context.
"The process of thinking requires feeling, for feelings are what let us understand all the information that we can't directly comprehend. Reason without emotion is impotent." (Page 26)
"Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process." (Page 54)
"The ability to supervise itself, to exercise authority over its own decision-making process, is one of the most mysterious talents of the human brain. Such a mental maneuver is known as executive control, since thoughts are directed from the tip down, like a CEO issuing orders." (Page 116)
"As it happens, some of our most important decisions are about how to treat other people. The human being is a social animal, endowed with a brain that shapes social behavior. By understanding how the brain makes these decisions, we can gain insight into one of the most unique aspects of human nature: morality." (Page 166) Lehrer devotes all of Chapter 6, The Mortal Mind, to this important "aspect." For
"At its core, moral decision-making is about sympathy. We abhor violence because we know violence hurts. We treat others fairly because we know what it feels like to be treated unfairly. We reject suffering because we can imagine what it's like to suffer. Our minds naturally bind us together, so we can't help but follow the advice of Luke: `And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Page 180)
Actually, I highlighted dozens of other passages but this review is already longer than I originally intended so I will quote no others. Because I think so highly of this book, I wanted to allow Lehrer sufficient opportunity to share at least a few of his thoughts with those who read this review. Credit him with a brilliant achievement: Enabling his readers to make better decisions by helping them to "see" themselves as they really are by carefully examining that is inside the "black box of the human brain." Only by doing so can we "honestly assess our flaws and talents, our strengths and shortcomings. For the first time [Lehrer claims], such a vision is possible. We finally have tools that can piece the mystery of the mind, revealing the intricate machinery that shapes our behavior. Now we need to put this knowledge."
I am unqualified to comment on Jonah Lehrer's claim that what he offers enables the aforementioned "vision" for the first time. However, he has certainly increased both my awareness and my understanding of what may be in my own "black box." ...more info