The Frontal Cortex

How We Decide

So the book is now shipping from Amazon, B&N, Powells, Borders, independent booksellers, etc. I thought I’d post an interview I conducted with myself a few months ago. (Once upon a time, I read these author Q&A’s that are used for publicity purposes and thought that someone else was asking the questions. Now I know better. But feel free to put your harder questions in the comments.)

Q: Why did you want to write a book about decision-making?

A: It all began with Cheerios. I’m an incredibly indecisive person. There 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: Ever since the time of the ancient Greeks, we’ve assumed that humans are rational creatures. When we make a decision, we are supposed to consciously analyze the alternatives and carefully weigh the pros and cons. This simple idea underlies the philosophies of Plato and Descartes; it forms the foundation of modern economics; it drove decades of research in cognitive science. Over time, rationality came to define us. It was, simply put, what made us human. There’s only one problem with this assumption: it’s wrong. It’s not how the brain works. For the first time in human history, we can look inside our brain and see how we think. It turns out that we weren’t engineered 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.

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: 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?

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 in a very authoritative voice, “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 solved.


  1. #1 Celeste
    January 22, 2009

    Really interesting stuff, Jonah! I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

  2. #2 adnauseam
    January 22, 2009

    So I did the only logical thing: I bought my three favorite Cheerios varieties and combined them all in my cereal bowl. Problem solved.

    What a brilliant and delicious solution!

  3. #3 Molly
    January 22, 2009

    Dear Jonah’s brain –

    The answer should always be honey-nut.

  4. #4 J-Dog
    January 22, 2009

    O’s = bad
    I’m a flake man myself….

    Congratulations on the book!

  5. #5 Very Evolved
    January 22, 2009

    Congrats on the book – I’m a neuroscientist myself, and it’s always great to see it actually communicated properly and in an interesting fashion.

    Honestly as a scientist, we suck at explaining to the public what we do.

    Also congratulations on solving your breakfast dilemma, truly a solution as simple as the one to the Gordian knot.



  6. #6 Steve
    January 22, 2009

    I look forward to reading your book, and, judging from Publisher’s Weekly’s starred review, you have nothing to be nervous about.

    No doubt you address the free will vs determinism issue in your book. Herbert Simon’s delightful metaphor of the brain and environment as the two blades of a pair of scissors reinforces my view that brain and environment are what the philosopher Alan Watts called a “unified field” and that the choices issuing from this field are the inevitable products of the conditions within it.

    In other words, there is no freedom to choose other than what the conditions within the field produce, and there is also no determinism of something outside the field causing it to choose as it does, because, ultimately, the field encompasses everything of which there is nothing outside.

  7. #7 Steve Silberman
    January 22, 2009

    It’s a brilliant book. Trying to do the same thing in my own much-less-graceful work, I know how hard it is to explain these concepts to a lay readership. Your natural narrative gifts are at their peak in this book. I couldn’t stop reading it.

  8. #8 Sara
    January 22, 2009

    I think I may buy your book simply because of your answer to the first question you posed yourself. (I work in publishing so I am quite familiar with Author Q&A’s and this answer would have made me instantly want to read your book.) Absolutely brilliant.

  9. #9 Matt
    January 22, 2009

    I absolutely loved the book! I just bought it last weekend and couldn’t put it down. You do a great job tying together stuff like dopamine and poker.Do you play poker, by the way?

  10. #10 Jim
    January 22, 2009

    So, how do I choose: hard cover, or audio book?

  11. #11 Very Evolved
    January 22, 2009

    @Jim I think the answer is in front of you: Buy both and mix chapters between mediums!


  12. #12 maya
    January 22, 2009

    i saw your book in the bookstore today but then remembered i already pre-ordered it on amazon and have to wait! still started reading in the store though, until i got weird looks from the cashier…can’t wait to read the rest!

    congrats! (on the cereal decision and the book)

  13. #13 Fertanish
    January 22, 2009

    Amazon delivered a copy on my doorstep today as well. Being without cardboard pop-ups or stereoscopic images like most books that I’m used to reading these days, it will probably take me a while to get through it. But so far I’m finding it to be very engaging, so stop being nervous (if you can decide to do so).

  14. #14 John Nicholson
    January 23, 2009

    ok i can see imeadiatly where you are comming from.You talked of working in neuro science where you contemplated yourselves and your own actions, this has to be a majour pathway to understanding our human mind.


    I Need a magazine to uderstand what I am talking about (See OECD ED FORUMS) and interperate what i have discovered TO back my theories SEED CAN BE THE MAGAZINE and you have the gift of words and neurophilasophical understanding to un Lock the brains of every child, THE WORLD NEEDS YOU NOW

  15. #15 OftenWrongTed
    January 23, 2009

    QUESTION: How should one go about reading this book?

    One Answer: “The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” How One Should Read a Book, an essay by Virginia Woolf.

  16. #16 Hoyt Duff
    January 26, 2009

    Got the book from Amazon last Friday; finished it Sunday. It is a fascinating topic and the book is written in a way that (obviously) held my interest.

    Many of the ways to use the information in my own decision-making process were presented in what I saw as an indirect manner and I had to becoming involved in thinking about what it meant and how I could use it. That’s an excellent way to do it because it leaves that last little piece of synthesis for me to complete.

    I’m going to re-read the book next weekend because I suspect that it will read differently once I’ve had time to process my feelings about what you wrote.

    Enjoy feeling good about your accomplishment.

  17. #17 Dan Peterson
    January 27, 2009

    Hi Jonah,
    How does “How We Decide” differ from “The Decisive Moment”?

  18. #18 Lee Pirozzi
    January 28, 2009

    I have a copy of your book on hold at B&N which I shall buy today. I’m sure it will inspire a painting. You know cheerios are a first food, and they are nestled in your brain in that comfort zone. Personally I would give them even more of a push into the reward category – melt chocolate over them and freeze them, then pull them out for emergencies only.

    Of course if you cook Italian food, you can churn them up
    in the breadcrumbs ,too, but don’t forget to churn in the almonds for health purposes. I look forward to reading your book.

  19. #19 jb
    January 29, 2009

    You asked us to pose questions: here’s one rather belatedly.
    I once read that we are run by a hegemony; that decisions can be made in different parts of the brain, and that at any given moment a decision might come from one area and then another, rather like the strongest opinion on a committee in a moment does the choosing. This makes sense from a survival standpoint. A large area of the brain would have to be wiped out before there was no decision maker left. Further I’ve read there is a default mode when the brain is in neutral and that this comes from a central strip of brain down the middle of the two hemisphere. So decisions could come from there or the left hemisphere after deliberate thought or a decision could arise spontaneosly when the brain/mind is relaxed and not thinking much which would be a right hemisphere decision. Is that correct? If you answer this in your new book, I’ll take my answer there. Looking forward to it! Love the cover!

  20. #20 Christian
    February 6, 2009

    “Therefore natural selection endowed us with a brain that is enthusiastically pluralist.”

    Replace “natural selection” with “God” and you have a true statement and a reflection of how awesome our mental capacities really are designed.

    Natural selection cannot be personified as “endowing” anything since it is merely a description of a theoretical process of increased complexity through random mutations. To pay homage to a random process for our biological complexity seems silly.

    I still may buy your book since I’m fascinated by the operational science of this topic (not the historical science).

  21. #21 Bernie
    February 9, 2009

    This is an interesting topic and I look forward to looking at the book. I have been fascinated by this topic since reading Kenneth Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values, where he demonstrates that collective choices are seldom rational as we typically define rationality.
    I still work in the area of how people make selection and promotion decisions. For a while I kept asking (and annoying) people how did they choose between heads and tails in a coin toss and besides habit I decided that the imperative to act probably dominated the choice – they did not really choose. This is probably how Jonah resolved his choice dilemma – his impending hunger led him to a different choice – choose or starve or choose or be late. Good choice Jonah!

  22. #22 joy starling
    February 17, 2009

    Very nice, loved the way you presented your subject…’s the style and flow that an amatuer scientist can appreciate….you brought some food to thought, thru your books explanation/insight…..
    Thru all our subliminal programming, when we go to make a choice of what food to eat, i.e. cereal, its my inner voice that tells me what I am “allowed” to have (I am over 50, therefore not allowed to eat the “Lucky Charms” anymore). I am constantly bombarded with the need to choose wisely for my age and weight, to mind the rules of good wise healthy choices! But, thank goodness I still have an inner child and can become 10 years old again and choose to not listen to that inner voice…..hahahha LUCKY CHARMS IT IS!!!!

  23. #23 Beverly
    February 21, 2009

    I am curious about one of your comments: “And sometimes we need to listen to our emotions and gut instinct.” Since most mental activity is not fully conscious, are we truly capable of listening? Look forward to your insight. Thanks!

  24. #24 Robben
    May 5, 2009

    In reply to christian.

    Based on your words like “operational science,and increased complexity, I’m assuming you’ve been reading answers in”

    No one in the real world understands these terms.
    I only do because I’ve studied evolution and creation debates for a long time. and I’m a christian.

  25. #25 Grif
    June 3, 2009

    Great Book!!! Had fallen out of the habit of reading other than technical literature, this was a great way to return.

    While the analogies used were entertaining, and for the most part valuable, I thought they were allowed to get in the way of the underlying science in a couple of places. As an example, the basket ball “streak” example was great. Good numbers, fit the thesis and showed the dichotomy quite nicely.

    The pilot example just didn’t seem to come together for me. Having spent some time thinking about the example and it’s representation, I’m not able to come up with a better one for the “intuitive leap”, and how it works.

    And, being employed by the Dept of the Interior, I thought the concept of “Selective Ignorance” was all mine,,, OhWell 😉

  26. #26 imza
    November 2, 2009

    I had a great teacher once who was really passionate about Shakespeare’s plays. He told us about the “problem of the Shakespearian O”. The trouble is that so much rides on this simple little thing, and we have to choose how to read it (with angery tones? a joyous cry?…).

    Who would have believed that making a choice around O s could lead to such a lot, eh?

    Can’t wait to get my hands on the book… I can’t seem to decide on anything. I could probably do with a new perspective on decisions… (shopping takes forever, and I‘m not just talking cereals!)

  27. #27 Steve Trutane
    January 25, 2010

    I enjoyed your NPR interview.

    I also heard this interview with William Poundstone, author of “Priceless, The Myth of Fair Value” that made me think of “How We Decide” when he says:

    Yeah, they started looking into how people make decisions. And they found that perceptions of value can be very easily manipulated by the context of the situation. To give an example, if you’re looking at flat-screen TVs and you see one that’s marked $800 and next to it is one marked $1,000 with a $200 rebate. Most people will prefer the rebate. So that’s why about 30 percent of all TVs now are sold with these rebate coupons.

    So it’s not just our own internal processes that impact our decision making ability, but there are economic and marketing factors at play as well.

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