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?
"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?
A transformative guide that uses famous artwork to teach readers to be more perceptive, from an instructorand#160;whoandrsquo;s taught FBI interrogators with Matisse, high-powered CEOs with Picasso, and Secret Service agents with Lichtenstein.and#160;
How could looking at Monetandrsquo;s water lily paintings help save your company millions? How can checking out peopleandrsquo;s footwear foil a terrorist attack? How can your choice of adjective win an argument, calm your kid, or catch a thief? and#160; Art historian Amy Herman has trained experts from many fields in the art of perception. By showing people how to look closely at images, she enables them to see more clearly, analyze more intelligently, and use seemingly hidden clues to better understand any situation. She has spent over a decade teaching doctors to pay attention to patients instead of their charts, helping police officers separate facts from opinions when describing a suspect, and training professionals from a wide array of fields, including the FBI, the State Department, and the military, toand#160; recognize the most pertinent and useful information. Her lessons highlight far more than the physical objects you may be missing; they teach you to uncover the hidden talents of new employees, and to reduce costly miscommunication among members of a team. and#160; Whether youandrsquo;re an executive who wants to run your company more effectively, a parent who wants to better understand your child, or simply anyone who wants to perceive any situation more clearly, you will see what matters most in a whole new light.
Itandrsquo;s not what you see, itandrsquo;s how you look.and#160;
An engrossing, eye-opening guide to seeingandmdash;and communicatingandmdash;more clearly, from the groundbreaking course that helps FBI agents, cops, CEOs, military Special Forces, ER docs, and others save money, reputations, and livesand#160;
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."
Q: Why did you want to write a book about
A: It all began with Cheerios. I'm an incredibly indecisive person. Here
I was, aimlessly wandering the cereal aisle of the supermarket, trying
to choose between the apple-cinnamon and honey-nut varieties. It was
an embarrassing waste of time and yet it happened to me all the time.
Eventually, I decided that enough was enough: I needed to understand
what was happening inside my brain as I contemplated my breakfast
options. I soon realized, of course, that this new science of decision-making
had implications far grander than Cheerios.
Q: What are some of those implications?
A: Life is ultimately just a series of decisions, from the mundane (what
should I eat for breakfast?) to the profound (what should I do with my
life?). Until recently, though, we had no idea how our brain actually made
these decisions. As a result, we relied on untested assumptions, such as the
assumption that people were rational creatures. (This assumption goes all
the way back to Plato and the ancient Greeks.) But now, for the first time
in human history, we can look inside our mind and see how we actually
think. It turns out that we weren't designed to be rational or logical or
even particularly deliberate. Instead, our mind holds a messy network
of different areas, many of which are involved with the production of
emotion. Whenever we make a decision, the brain is awash in feeling,
driven by its inexplicable passions. Even when we try to be reasonable and
restrained, these emotional impulses secretly influence our judgment. Of
course, by understanding how the human mind makes decisions and by
learning about the decision-making mistakes that we're all vulnerable to
we can learn to make better decisions.
Q: Can neuroscience really teach us how to
make better decisions?
A: My answer is a qualified yes. Despite the claims of many self-help
books, there is no secret recipe for decision-making, no single strategy
that can work in every situation. The real world is just too complex. The
thought process that excels in the supermarket won't pass muster in the
Oval Office. Therefore natural selection endowed us with a brain that
is enthusiastically pluralist. Sometimes we need to reason through our
options and carefully analyze the possibilities. And sometimes we need to
listen to our emotions and gut instinct. The secret, of course, is knowing
when to use different styles of thought when to trust feelings and when
to exercise reason. In my book, I devoted a chapter to looking at the world
through the prism of the game of poker and found that, in poker as in life,
two broad categories of decisions exist: math problems and mysteries.
The first step to making the right decision, then, is accurately diagnosing
the problem and figuring out which brain system to rely on. Should we
trust our intuition or calculate the probabilities? We always need to be
thinking about how we think.
Q: Are you a good poker player?
A: When I was in Vegas, hanging out with some of best poker players
in the world, I convinced myself that I'd absorbed the tricks of the
trade, that I could use their advice to win some money. So I went to
a low-stakes table at the Rio, put $300 on the line, and waited for the
chips to accumulate. Instead, I lost all my money in less than an hour. It
was an expensive but valuable lesson: there's a big difference between
understanding how experts think and being able to think like an expert.
Q: Why write this book now?
A: Neuroscience can seem abstract, a science preoccupied with questions
about the cellular details of perception and the memory of fruit flies.
In recent years, however, the field has been invaded by some practical
thinkers. These scientists want to use the nifty experimental tools of
modern neuroscience to explore some of the mysteries of everyday life.
How should we choose a cereal? What areas of the brain are triggered
in the shopping mall? Why do smart people accumulate credit card debt
and take out subprime mortgages? How can you use the brain to explain
financial bubbles? For the first time, these incredibly relevant questions
have rigorously scientific answers. It all goes back to that classical Greek
aphorism: Know thyself. I'd argue that the discoveries of modern
neuroscience allow us to know ourselves (and our decisions!) in an
entirely new way.
Q: How We Decide draws from the
latest research in neuroscience yet also
analyzes some crucial moments in the
lives of a variety of "deciders," from the
football star Tom Brady to a soap opera
director. Why did you take this approach?
A: Herbert Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, famously
compared our mind to a pair of scissors. One blade, he said, represented
the brain. The other blade was the specific environment in which our brain
was operating. If you want to understand the function of scissors, Simon
said, then you have to look at both blades simultaneously. What I wanted
to do in How We Decide was venture out of the lab and into the real
world so that I could see the scissors at work. I discuss some ingenious
experiments in this book, but let's face it: the science lab is a startlingly
artificial place. And so, wherever possible, I tried to explore these scientific
theories in the context of everyday life. Instead of just writing about
hyperbolic discounting and the feebleness of the prefrontal cortex, I spent
time with a debt counselor in the Bronx. When I became interested in the anatomy of insight where do our good ideas come from? I interviewed
a pilot whose epiphany in the cockpit saved hundreds of lives. That's
when you really begin to appreciate the power of this new science when
you can use its ideas to explain all sorts of important phenomena, such
as the risky behavior of teenagers, the amorality of psychopaths, and the
tendency of some athletes to choke under pressure.
Q: What do you do in the cereal aisle now?
A: I was about halfway through writing the book when I got some great
advice from a scientist. I was telling him about my Cheerios dilemma
when he abruptly interrupted me: "The secret to happiness," he said,
"is not wasting time on irrelevant decisions." Of course, this sage advice
didn't help me figure out what kind of cereal I actually wanted to eat
for breakfast. So I did the only logical thing: I bought my three favorite
Cheerios varieties and combined them all in my cereal bowl. Problem
Â© Nina Subin 2008