How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Overview: 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?

My thoughts: This book was very taxing to read since it took me forever to get through and my brain kept shouting, “NO!” at every scientific inconsistency.

Writing style wise, the book is captivating. Lehrer uses lots of stories to connect the psychological ideas with real-life. He’s a great storyteller. It’s easy to read, and very entertaining. I would’ve rated this book higher if it wasn’t for his bad science. If you’re not a big science person and would just like to enlighten yourself about decision-making, this may be a good book for you.

Now, to explain the taxing of the book and my brain’s reaction. I’m a psychology major, so I know many of the concepts that Lehrer is talking about. My brain just wants to facepalm itself every time he introduces a new idea. He takes an idea and then stretches it beyond its max, such that the idea is no longer valid. Let’s take the missile example. The man chose to signal an alert even though the enemy missile looked the same as an ally ship. Why? Lehrer claims it’s his emotions. The truth is, it’s the connections in his brain that has formed overtime from practice-and not emotions-that allow the man to make the right decision. Yes, it’s mostly unconscious, but the fact is it’s not an emotional decision. We don’t have the technology to probe the unconscious to know if it’s an emotion or not, but we do know neural connections influence unconscious decisions.

Let’s take another example: chapter 7 “The Brain is an Argument.” In this, Lehrer basically describes what social psychologists call the Confirmation Bias, but he never calls it that. It’s a phenomenon due to the way the brain is structured and not an emotional response. Emotions may be a symptom of Confirmation Bias, but it’s not the reason why people always support what they think is right. Many psychologists think that people use Confirmation Bias to increase their confidence and increase their confidence of their level of survival since theoretically you’re more likely to survive if you’re not experiencing a threat.

What’s funnier is that Lehrer says what every good scientist says, “Correlation does not equal causation,” yet he takes correlations and makes them into causation to support his ideas. He’s using the Confirmation Bias, not emotional reasoning.

I’m not sure what his definition of emotion is. It’s not clearly defined. He quotes it as physiological symptoms (sweating, heartrate), as neurotransmitters (dopamine), and as neural structures in the brain (amygdala), as intuition or just some “feeling?” He doesn’t fully explain how all of these aspects are connected, basically just claiming that we’re unconscious of it all. However, we can explain a good bit of our emotions (we know failing a task will make us feel miserable), so I don’t think all of his claims are valid. The biggest problem with this book is that most of the research he quotes is still under investigation. We don’t know enough about the unconscious and intuition to be able to say, “Yes, this is how emotions work.” There are so many variables in humans that science hasn’t been able to clearly classify emotions with strict definitions. To say that we can decide with “feelings” is preposterous because that word could mean so many different things. Sometimes, these “feelings” aren’t just feelings, but our brain making connections that we aren’t thinking about because we’re not practicing meta-cognition (thinking about our thinking).

To sum up his book in a more scientific way, we make decisions using experience from past events (connections between neurons formed due to learning and practice), meta-cognition, and neurotransmitters activating certain regions in our brains. None of these things fully explain emotions unless you think emotions are all biological and have no other components. However, emotions and decisions are more complex than what he claims.

I found this book in my college library.

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