Author: Jonah Lehrer

2009, Houghton Mifflin

Filed Under: Nonfiction.

How We Decide distills cognitive science and explains the physiology of decision-making in easily relatable layman’s terms. Personally, I found it very interesting, and it has given me plenty of conversational fodder for a while to come. If you want to read about how humans make decisions, how we’re hardwired to do certain things under certain circumstances, and how and perhaps why our brains evolved as they did, then Jonah Lehrer’s book is certainly worth your time.

Lehrer breaks down his analysis and description with accessible metaphors: Tom Brady chucking a TD, a pilot wrestling the controls of  a failing airplane, a stockbroker managing investments. The anecdotes he uses tend to be interesting, and when he stops time in his examples and describes the various split-second options presented in each moment and each subject’s brain’s decision process, I found his science pretty fascinating. It never gets scholarly or tough to follow though; this is the type of neuroscience you’d get from the Discovery Channel, not the DSM-IV.

Basically, when it comes to making decisions (both conscious and unconscious) the human brain utilizes two tool sets, emotion and reason. Emotion is often, but not always, instant and instinctual. Reason (Plato’s charioteer) tends to be slower, more methodical. We tend to associate emotional decision making with rashness, and we think of rationality as a crucial ingredient in man’s superiority over other forms of life.

But, as Lehrer explains it, neither is necessarily true. In many instances, emotional reactions are more reliable and successful than deliberate, rational choices. Look at a baseball player, and the fraction of a second they have to decide about swinging the bat, or a soldier under fire. Sometimes it’s best to go with your gut.

Of course, your gut can be wrong, and so too can your reason. What I found most interesting about the information in this book is the various manners in which emotion and reason are constantly (and instantaneously) working in tandem. Reason often prevents us from repeating mistakes, and yet other times it confuses us into making choices we know to be wrong. Emotion constantly takes past experiences into account, utilizing in a millisecond knowledge it might take much longer to consciously consider.

Oddly enough, there are some emotional reactions hardwired into our own brains. For instance “negativity bias.” Our brains process bad news with much more gravity than good news. This is interesting but it also has real life applications–e.g. students whose attention is directed toward their incorrect answers become harder workers and attain better grades than students who are praised for their correct answers. The book shares a lot of similar studies, and it is real world examples like this that I enjoyed most. For many, Lehrer explores the human brain’s connection to money. Because of how our brains work, we spend more money with plastic than cash, because we don’t register the physical loss of money that happens when we make change, for example.

This book is riddled with various examples of how the way we are constructed influence our daily lives. It’s really where the book becomes quite fascinating. In the end, it is hard neuroscince, but it is disguised as accessible and often fun anecdotes. This is either the kind of book you’ll like or it isn’t. I did. If you’re looking for a break from fiction, How We Decide is a good choice.

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