Book Review & Notes on How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Should I wear the red tie or the yellow tie? Should I order the chicken or the fish? Should I use my inheritance to re-enter the stock market, or pay down my mortgage?

To be human is to be endlessly jostled by choice. And many of the decisions we make are earnest business. Particularly in these challenging economic times, making even one bad decision can truly cripple us. There’s no question that our decisions matter. But when it comes right down to it, do we really understand how our decisions are made?

Since the days of Plato and Aristotle, scholars have characterized the human decision-making process as either predominantly rational, or emotional. Those in the former camp believe that we humans have evolved (or progressed) so that we’re now prone to careful deliberation and weighing of options. And those in the other camp believe that human rationality is really just a carefully contrived illusion; and whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not, virtually all decisions are actually based on “gut” instinct.

As it turns out, the truth actually lies somewhere in the middle. As modern-day researchers begin to peel back the many interconnected layers of the human brain using the latest tools of neuroscience, they’re discovering that neither extreme is in fact how the mind works. It just so happens that our best decisions employ a blend of both emotion and reason. The precise mix depends on the situation. For example, when buying a house, it turns out it’s best to rely more on our instincts. But when we’re picking a stock, our intuition may lead us astray. For those who seek to improve their decision-making prowess, the real trick is to determine when to consciously rely on one side of our brains, versus the other. And to do this, we need to think harder about how we think.

In How We Decide, a youngish Rhodes Scholar named Jonah Lehrer surveys the current state of knowledge about our most important (but also most commonly misunderstood) organ: our brain. At the tender age of 27, Lehrer is already something of a popular science prodigy, having already published a critically acclaimed book called Proust Was a Neuroscientist. In How We Decide, Lehrer builds on his earlier work to show how trusting our instincts can help us solve certain kinds of problems more effectively. But he also cautions us about relying too heavily on the emotional side of our brain, for it is easily fooled, especially when we’re facing a situation that’s unfamiliar.

As we’ll explore more fully in this summary, Lehrer’s central point is that learning which side of our brain to trust under what circumstances is the key to making consistently good decisions. And without a doubt, in these turbulent times, those of us who learn to better use our heads to more quickly sort through the fast-moving and uncertain economic information that surrounds us will have a clear advantage over the next guy.

Now, if you aren’t necessarily looking for a competitive edge, you might as well stop reading. But if you like the idea of being a step ahead of the competition, let’s carry on …

Human Rationality Defined

Before we move further into Lehrer’s core thesis, it may be worth taking a moment to understand the author’s definition of human rationality. Rationality can be a surprisingly difficult word to define — it has a long and convoluted intellectual history — but it’s generally used to describe a particular style of thinking. Plato associated rationality with the use of logic, which he believed made humans think like the gods. Modern economists have refined Plato’s early ideas into something called “rational choice theory,” which assumes that people make decisions by unconsciously multiplying the probability of getting what they want by the amount of pleasure (or utility) that getting what they want will bring them. This way of thinking supposedly allows us to maximize our happiness, which is what rational people should do.

Of course, the mind isn’t purely a rational machine. Our emotions can and do take over from time-to-time. Nevertheless, neuroscience tells us that the human brain does have a network of rational parts, centered in the prefrontal cortex. And if it weren’t for those tiny lumps of grey matter, we wouldn’t even conceive of reason, let alone act rationally.

Reason vs. Emotion: A Fool’s Debate

Of course, it’s one thing for modern science to demonstrate that we humans have a highly evolved capacity for rational decision-making. But it’s quite another thing to argue that rational decision-making is necessarily the best form of decision-making.

In the first section of his book, Lehrer takes aim at those who argue that society would be better served if we all made our decisions based solely on facts and figures, just like the hyper-rational Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame.

To bolster his argument, Lehrer invites us to consider the experience of NFL quarterback Tom Brady. For several years now, Brady, who plays for the New England Patriots, has consistently been one of the league’s most prolific passers. Like any other quarterback, Brady makes hundreds of important decisions on the fly during a football game. Yet few of those decisions are “rational.” Defensive pass coverages in the NFL are so complex, and defenders are so fast and skilled, that few receivers are ever “wide open” on any given play. Accordingly, on just about every snap of the football, the most rational thing for Brady to do would be to not throw the ball at all, for risk that it will likely be intercepted by an opposing player.

Fortunately for New England Patriots fans, nearly all of Tom Brady’s game day decisions are not based in rationality. Despite what Brady’s “head” might tell him about the risks of an interception, his “heart” compels him to keep his rational doubts in check and throw the damn football anyway. And given Brady’s impressive win-loss record, it’s clear that the vast majority of his emotionally-driven decisions are good ones. It’s precisely because Brady is feeling the pressure of nearly being sacked on each and every play that he’s able to make the incredible plays he does; almost in spite of his rational self.

Of course, emotional decision-making isn’t just effective for NFL football players. Lehrer cites several other real-life instances where relying too much on our left-brained reason and intellect would be ineffective, if not highly dangerous (he cites the split-second, life-saving judgments required of pilots and firefighters, for example).

But interestingly, it’s not only life-or-death type situations where emotional decision-making leads to better outcomes. Lehrer points to studies where otherwise intelligent adults have become virtually incapable of making even the most trivial decisions, such as what to order for lunch, when their capacity for emotion is damaged as a result of a brain injury. This is because our feelings color our rational ideas (i.e. our known food preferences) by adding direction and intensity (i.e. I like both chicken and beef, but I feel like beef today).

At the same time, while emotionally-guided thinking can keep us out of trouble in certain situations, Lehrer warns that relying entirely on our “gut” can also lead to fatal mistakes. For instance, in 1989, United Airlines Captain Al Haynes accomplished the seemingly impossible task of crash landing a DC-10 without a hydraulic system. Lehrer points to several points in Haynes’ white-knuckle descent when instinct would have pulled him into a deadly tailspin. By calmly assessing and re-assessing the situation, and letting reason (as opposed to fear) be his guide, Haynes averted an almost-certain catastrophe.

The point here is that neither rational nor emotional decision-making is inherently superior. The “choice” of which to use depends entirely on the situation. So, in Lehrer’s view, it is a fool’s debate to argue for more rational thinking in the world. Or vice-versa.

How We Should Decide

As we’ve seen, while reason and feeling are both essential cognitive tools, each is better suited for specific types of tasks. While the science of decision-making remains a relatively young science, and more research clearly needs to be done, according to Lehrer there are some general guidelines that can help us all make better decisions.

The first guideline is that SIMPLE PROBLEMS REQUIRE REASON. Leading neuroscientists believe that an average person can consciously process somewhere between five and nine distinct pieces of information at any given moment, and with practice and experience that range can be slightly expanded.

Once we move beyond that number, the rational brain quickly becomes overwhelmed, and the emotional decision-making apparatus naturally kicks-in. So, if we hope to make a truly rational decision about a problem that’s facing us, it’s critical that we narrow down the variables.

For example, if you’re in a kitchen supplies store looking to buy a new vegetable peeler, you might find yourself confronted with eight different types of peelers of various shapes, sizes and colors. This is precisely the type of situation that calls out for rational decision-making (after all, no one really needs to “fall in love” with a potato peeler), but because there are so many variables (i.e. eight peelers, different colors, different brands, different materials, different price points, etc.), if left to its own devices, your brain will naturally default to making an emotional decision. You’ll end up buying the peeler that just “feels right.” But really, at the end of the day, isn’t a vegetable peeler supposed to be a functional item that mostly sits buried in a dark drawer and gets used maybe once or twice a week, at best?

Assuming that’s the case, then Lehrer would suggest you make the decision based on one variable alone — price. Chances are, if you’re standing in a reputable kitchen supply store, they would not be stocking peelers that are going to break after the first use. All eight varieties of peelers on offer will almost certainly be of decent quality, and perfectly functional. So why not let your rational mind do the talking in this case, and just buy the most inexpensive one?

On the other hand, for important decisions about more complex items — a couch, or a car for example — categorizing the item by price alone would likely not lead to a better decision. Buying a couch is not a simple decision that calls for purely rational thinking. The cheapest couch in the store may well be of inferior quality, or not the right shape for your family room, or clash with the drapes. On complex decisions, when there are too many variables to process at once, Lehrer says it’s generally better to go with your gut.

Moving right along with Lehrer’s taxonomy of decision-making, it’s also the case that NOVEL PROBLEMS REQUIRE REASON. According to Lehrer, if a problem is truly unprecedented and like nothing you’ve ever faced before, reason can be your ally. Generally speaking, the only way to get out of a truly unique mess is to come up with a creative solution. And being creative demands that we consciously engage the more flexible neurons of our prefrontal cortex, where rational decision-making occurs.

To illustrate this point, Lehrer tells the story of a firefighter named Wag Dodge, who on a fateful day in 1949 found himself in the midst of an out-of-control forest fire in rural Montana. Dodge was a veteran firefighter, but in all his years of working as a “smokejumper” (i.e. a firefighter who gets literally parachuted into the heart of a raging forest fire), he’d never seen an inferno like this one. He and his fourteen colleagues suddenly found themselves facing a 200 foot tall wall of fire that was advancing toward them at a rate of thirty miles per hour, incinerating everything in its path. Dodge and his men started to run, but after a few minutes of running he could feel “fierce heat” on his back. That’s when he realized the fire could not be outrun. And so he stopped running.

But Dodge wasn’t committing suicide, says Lehrer. In a fit of absolute desperation, Dodge forced himself to stop and take a deep breath so his rational brain could try to come up with an escape plan. In a brilliant spark of creativity, Dodge lit a match and ignited the ground in front of him. He watched patiently as the dry grasses burned, and the flames raced away from him, in the direction of the prevailing winds. Then he lay down on the still smoldering embers, covered his face, closed his eyes, and waited for the wall of fire to overtake him, which it soon did. Then after several terrifying minutes, Dodge emerged from the ashes virtually unharmed. Only two other firefighters besides Dodge managed to survive the inferno that day, and both were badly burned.

Today, “Dodge’s escape fire” is a standard firefighting technique, taught in classrooms around the world. But at the time, his unconventional idea must have seemed like shear madness to the other firefighters who kept running as Dodge stood in his place. Yet, the end result speaks for itself. Dodge forced himself to be creative, and not only saved his own skin, but also became an example to future generations of firefighters.

Lehrer’s final guideline is about doing a better job of trusting ourselves, no matter what the situation. “WE KNOW MORE THAN WE KNOW,” writes Lehrer.

According to Lehrer, one of the enduring paradoxes of the human mind is that it doesn’t know itself very well. The conscious brain is ignorant of its own underpinnings, and blind to all the neural activity that’s taking place at every waking moment. (As Nietzsche warned, we are often most blind to what is closest to us.) But now, thanks to the tools of modern neuroscience, we can see that our emotions do have a logic of their own. Whether we realize it or not, our emotional brains are especially useful at helping us make hard decisions. Vast amounts of data are broken down into manageable chunks, processed behind-the-scenes, and then translated into practical feelings.

And the reason our emotions are so intelligent is that they’re constantly learning; both from our successes and our failures. We are constantly growing and benefiting from the experiences around us, even if we’re not consciously aware of those benefits. So the lesson here is not to discount our feelings too quickly. Instead, according to Lehrer, the one thing we should always be doing is thinking about WHY we’re feeling the way we are. That way, even if we ultimately choose to ignore our emotions in some cases, at least we’ve taken them into account as a valuable input to the decision-making process.

Of course, even the most attentive and self-aware people will still make mistakes. Religiously following the three guidelines summarized above will not offer an absolute guarantee of achieving success in business, or in life. Even after playing a perfect season in 2008 (the New England Patriots went 16 — 0 during the regular NFL season), Tom Brady was outshone by his Super Bowl opponent, Eli Manning, quarterback of the New York Giants, and the heavily-favored Patriots ended up losing the big game. But you have to believe that, even in defeat, Brady learned something from the experience. This, says Lehrer, is the most astonishing thing about the human brain: it can always improve itself. Today, we may make a bad decision. But tomorrow, we’ll make a better one.

Conclusion

Despite the claims of many self-help books, there is no secret recipe for perfect decision-making. There’s no single strategy that can work in every situation. The real world is just too complex. A thought process that might work well in the cereal aisle at the supermarket may not pass muster in the Oval Office. But fortunately for us, the human brain is a remarkably pluralist instrument. Just as we can use it to reason our way through various options and carefully analyze the possibilities, we can also chuck all that out the window and make decision based purely on gut instinct. The secret, of course, lies in knowing when to trust our feelings, and when to deliberately exercise reason.

While there are no hard-and-fast rules for each situation, Jonah Lehrer has offered up some interesting guiding principles. Now, whether we choose to apply some (or all) of those, at least we’ve taken a first step toward making better decisions by seeing ourselves as we truly are by looking inside the black box of the human brain. Thanks to the efforts of writers like Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell and others — who skillfully find ways to translate new discoveries in the field of neuroscience into everyday language — we finally have the means to understand the intricate, unseen machinery that shapes our behavior on a day-to-day basis. Now it’s up to us to put this knowledge to work.

 

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