The Frontal Cortex

How We Decide (Paperback Remix)

The paperback of How We Decide is now shipping from your favorite online retailers and should be in local bookstores. To celebrate the occasion, I thought I’d repost an interview I conducted with myself when the hardcover was published last year. If you’d like more, there’s also this interview on Fresh Air, and this interview on the Colbert Report.

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 (Honey-Nut, Multigrain and Original) and combined them all in my cereal bowl. Problem solved.

Comments

  1. #1 bob koepp
    January 11, 2010

    Jonah –
    May the royalties rool in.

    On the other hand, do you think people like Plato and Descartes (among many, many others) believed that people are rational “in fact,” or only that people have the capacity to be rational when circumstances are more or less “favorable” to the exercise of such a capacity? I think there’s good reason to believe it’s the latter, and that this significantly affects how one ought to understand the “normativity” of rationality.

    Oh, and when it comes to choosing between breakfast cereals, whenever the potential difference in satisfaction is outweighed by the cost of dithering, it’s completely rational to let the “choice” be random.

  2. #2 ELIZABETH FLORES
    January 11, 2010

    Hi, I’m a Mexican writer and translator, I just found the article you wrote in 2006 for Seed magazine “The effeminate sheep and other problems with sexual selection”, currently there is a big controversy in the country due to a new law that allows same sex couples to get married in Mexico City. Part of the controversy revolves around the issue of “normality”… I think the article would be a great addition to the debate, are you the holder of the publication rights? if not, who can I contact?
    Congratulations on your excellent work.
    Elizabeth Flores

  3. #3 OftenWrongTed
    January 11, 2010

    The remix has become even more timely, (part of the book examines decision-making by pilots,) since the remarkable landing in The Hudson River by Capt. Sullenberger. I re-read the book shortly after that landing.

  4. #4 Rob
    January 11, 2010

    Now that the paperback edition’s out, I can get copies as gifts for friends. One of the most enjoyable reads of last year (or any year, really) for me. Keep up the terrific work!

  5. #5 Brandon Hidaka
    January 12, 2010

    Your two books are some of my most favorite of all time. As I shop for a house, my realtor asks me to explain why do and do not like each particular house. I explained to him that this will not be a conscious, deliberative decision with explicit reasons. I told him about how I am confident that I will be happy with my decision by limiting my search to houses close to the medical center (where I need to be most of the time) and that I’m going to trust my feeling and intuition. Thank you for such practical advice for effective metacognitive strategies. You’ve changed countless lives for the better!

  6. #6 Charlie
    January 12, 2010

    “The secret to happiness is not wasting time on irrelevant decisions.” Of course, you have to decide which decisions are relevant or not. But could that decision in itself be irrelevant?

  7. #7 jb
    January 12, 2010

    Congratulations on the paperback edition of “How We Decide”, Jonah. I was just rereading the chapter on moral decisions which enable me to understand how it is that I was so able to identify with the 10′ tall blue humanoids in “Avatar” just as easily as I identify with my favorite characters in the TV series “Lost”. Not to mention relating to real people in my life in a mostly positive way. James Cameron relied on the intimate human interactions between real actors as recorded by special cameras that capture every nuance of facial expression to serve as the visual foundation on which the images of Na’vi were built. Thus our mirror neurons and fusiform face areas in the brain were able to make contact with the human facial expressions of talented actors and do their magic. Thanks again for a wonderful book and your earlier “Avatar” post!

  8. #8 meryl
    January 15, 2010

    Congratulations! I bought the hardcopy when it first came out in Singapore @Kinokuniya bookshop, which is how I got to know about your blog.

    Two points –

    1) You’ve got to be a Libra.
    2) Imagine the agony when choosing who to marry.

    Enjoy enjoy enjoy

  9. #9 Shrikant
    January 24, 2010

    Hello Jonah! Hearing your interview on NPR on the web from India, as I type this. I have been reading this blog of yours for a while via Google Reader so my first or so visit on this site.
    It’s very informative
    I was especially looking for information on how to see/observe behavioral growth patterns in new born children and toddlers. Will be looking through this site for understanding the developmental aspects.
    Do suggest if you have written something about this aspect.

  10. #10 audrey
    April 13, 2010

    Who is the “scientist” who said: “The secret to happiness,” “is not wasting time on irrelevant decisions.” This is indeed very sage advice and I would like a source to quote.

    I greatly enjoy your style of writing as it combines science and culture- relatable and informative. I look forward to reading more.

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