Sunday, May 12, 2013

How We Decide

by Jonah Lehrer

A look at the existing literature on behavioral science and the conclusions it makes about how we make decisions; specifically, the book argues that we do not simply decide rationally. Rather, we use a blend of emotion, gut feeling, or instinct, as well as a rational weighing of pros and cons, when we decide. Or at least, we should. (The experimental literature is especially fascinating here, as for example in the man who has a brain injury that leaves him affectless and unmoved by emotion, and thus unable to make even the simplest decision, as he gets caught up in an endless loop of weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each possibility.) Snap decisions based on observation and instinct, Lehrer shows in countless examples, are often better (as in successfully crash-landing a plane or escaping a forest fire) than simply listening to one’s desires (as those trapped in credit card debt know too well). On the other hand, as Lehrer shows from examples in the fields of sports and art, over-thinking a mistake or a challenge can lead to perpetual self-doubt and undoing. The crucial point is that deciders must analyze their own decisions and watch carefully how much emotion is biasing their choices; we “know more than we think we know,” and if we apply reason to that knowledge, we can make efficient decisions.

This isn’t a particularly weighty or earth-shaking conclusion, and much of the material here can be found in other popular books on neuroscience. I recognized the hot hands study, the story of the firefighter who built a burnt patch to save himself, and several others. Instead of providing further insight on or alternative interpretations of these studies, Lehrer repeats their key points in such a way that they relate to his larger claims about decision making. I also learned, just before finishing this book, that Lehrer is the disgraced journalist who manufactured Bob Dylan quotes for a subsequent book. So, caveat lector, I suppose. Those problematic aspects aside, I very much enjoyed this book, with its wealth of fascinating anecdotes from brain studies and its practical, sensible applications of the studies to advice on how to decide. Lehrer’s style is breezy and accessible, and he has a gift for finding the empathy, suspense, and drama in every human story.

four stars

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