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How We Decideby Jonah Lehrer
Synopses & Reviews
From the acclaimed author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, a fascinating look at the new science of decision-making and how it can help us make better choices. Since Plato, philosophers have described the decisionmaking 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 lean on which part 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 by Daniel Kahneman, Colin Camerer, and others, 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?
"What is going on in the brain of a pilot deciding how to handle an emergency or a man trying to escape a wildfire? Does reason or emotion rule our decision making? Seed magazine editor-at-large Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist) brings recent research in neurobiology to life as he shows that the view, dating back to Plato, of the decision-making brain as a charioteer (reason) trying to control wild horses (emotions) comes up short. As Lehrer describes in fluid prose, the brain's reasoning centers are easily fooled, often making judgments based on nonrational factors like presentation (a sales pitch or packaging). And Lehrer cites a study of investors given varying amounts of financial data to show that our inner charioteer also can be confused by too much information. Even more surprisingly, research shows that 'gut instinct' often does make better decisions than long, drawn-out reasoning, and people with impaired emotional responses have trouble coping with the decisions required in everyday life. Lehrer is a delight to read, and this is a fascinating book (some of which appeared recently, in a slightly different form, in the New Yorker) that will help everyone better understand themselves and their decision making." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Imagine yourself in the place of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, the pilot of US Airways flight 1549. A "double bird strike" has disabled your engines. You've asked an air controller to let you return to LaGuardia. You can head to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, or you can try to glide over the George Washington Bridge and ditch your Airbus A320 in the Hudson River. How do you choose?... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) In "How We Decide," Jonah Lehrer, a journalist with research experience, asks neuroscience to explain the deliberative process. Looking at a similar incident in which quick thinking averted an airline disaster, he writes that the pilot "used his prefrontal cortex to manage his emotions." The cortex overrides maladaptive responses, such as panic; people who reason well under stress have "high prefrontal function." Lehrer elaborates: "Studies show that neurons in the prefrontal areas will fire in response to a stimulus — such as the sight of some cockpit instrumentation — and then keep on firing for several seconds." That extra firing allows for fresh thought: "Once this overlapping of ideas occurs, cortical cells start to form connections that have never existed before, wiring themselves into entirely new networks." The prefrontal cortex then evaluates the insight and recognizes it as a solution to the problem. The process results in the transformation of old learning into a creative response to the crisis at hand. You head for the Hudson, and lives are saved. This explanation might be satisfying were it not for everything else we know about thought and feeling. For instance, Lehrer describes studies that show how "choking" at sports results from too much reasoning. Likewise, the "framing effect," in which our expectations cause us, for example, to overvalue cheap wine when it's served from expensive-looking bottles, results in errors in judgment attributable to a prefrontal cortex that's working overtime. Whole branches of psychology and economics arise from research revealing glitches in our rationality, tendencies to remain loyal to bad choices and to see patterns where none exists. And then there is extensive evidence that some judgments are best made on an emotional basis; indeed, many successful decisions — in the face of this defense, toss the football there — are made instantaneously, too fast for the newer, rational part of the brain to run through every step of the analytic process. Lehrer's method is to introduce research findings through dramatic illustrations, such as a crucial Tom Brady pass in a Super Bowl. Lehrer is prone to hyperbole — fans of Joe Namath's 1969 New York Jets might not agree that the New England Patriot's 2002 victory over the St. Louis Rams was "the greatest upset in NFL history" — but he's expert at both storytelling and hard science. "How We Decide" is always fascinating, which is not to say that the book is without problems. Lehrer does little to integrate science's contradictory findings. As he himself demonstrates, sometimes, like a quarterback, we should rely on gut feelings; sometimes, like a pilot, we should favor reason. And both capacities, arising from millennia of animal evolution, are fallible in the face of recent innovations, like marketing and advertising. Nor does Lehrer succeed in showing that linking mind functions to brain regions will allow us to make better assessments. About a pilot's genius, we might convey as much if we said that he remained calm and relied on his training and ingenuity. It never becomes clear that neuroscience can inform our decisions better than Socrates' division of the mind into appetite, reason and spirit. Joseph T. Hallinan, in "Why We Make Mistakes," takes the alternate route, reviewing comparable material — often the same studies Lehrer cites — and attending only to psychology. Explaining why we prefer plonk with a Chateau Lafite label, Hallinan refers to pattern recognition, fixed associations and skewed judgment. Lehrer goes further and reports that "only one brain region seemed to respond to the (apparent) price of the wine rather than the wine itself: the prefrontal cortex." Hallinan can be informative. For example, he is convincing when he writes that, contrary to what you've been told, you'll do better, on average, if you rely on second impressions and change your answers on multiple-choice tests. But for me, these books called up a hoary anecdote about a Harvard "final club," a fraternity that stored essays as well as exams. An undergrad gets an A on a biology paper enhanced by a colorful image of a fish. Next year, another kid hands in the same paper: A. Finally, a student, thinking to avoid detection, discards the drawing, resubmits the paper and gets it back marked: "B+ — where's the fish?" I know that it's mostly an example of the fallacious thinking that these two books warn against — a case of misleading "framing" in which elegant neuroscience, like a cut-glass decanter, exerts influence over a judgment about the worth of the content — but, however unfairly, after I read Hallinan, my mind went: "B+ — where's the prefrontal cortex?" Peter D. Kramer's most recent book is "Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind." Reviewed by Peter D. Kramer, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Should we go with instinct or analysis? The answer, Lehrer explains, in this smart and delightfully readable book, is that it depends on the situation. Knowing which method works best in which case is not just useful but fascinating. Lehrer proves once again that hes a master storyteller and one of the best guides to the practical lessons from new neuroscience." Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired and author of The Long Tail
"Cash or credit? Punt or go for first down? Deal or no deal? Life is filled with puzzling choices. Reporting from the frontiers of neuroscience and armed with riveting case studies of how pilots, quarterbacks, and others act under fire, Jonah Lehrer presents a dazzlingly authoritative and accessible account of how we make decisions, what's happening in our heads as we do so, and how we might all become better deciders. Luckily, this one's a no-brainer: Read this book." Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)
"Over the past two decades, research in neuroscience and behavioral economics has revolutionized our understanding of human decision making. Jonah Lehrer brings it all together in this insightful and enjoyable book, giving readers the information they need to make the smartest decisions." Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes Error and Looking for Spinoza
"Jonah Lehrer ingeniously weaves neuroscience, sports, war, psychology, and politics into a fascinating tale of human decision making. In the process, he makes us much wiser." Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational
From the acclaimed author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist comes a fascinating look at the new science of decision-making. Lehrer explores two questions: How does the human mind make decisions? and How can those decisions be made better?
About the Author
Jonah Lehrer is editor at large for Seed magazine and the author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2007) and How We Decide (February 2009). A graduate of Columbia University and a Rhodes Scholar, Lehrer has worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel and has written for The New Yorker, Wired, Boston Globe, Washington Post, and Nature, and writes a highly regarded blog, The Frontal Cortex. Lehrer also commentates for NPR's "Radio Lab."
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