Neuron Culture


The Decider


The Decisive

I finally got a chance to write about Patrick O’Brian’s splendid Aubrey-Maturin novels. Captain Jack Aubrey, the hero of those Dickensically rich novels, provides a model of decision-making relevant to the paper reviewed in this week’s Mind Matters,, the weekly blog seminar on mind and brain I edit at This week’s topic is whether big, complicated decisions — buying a car, going to war — can be reliably made with little deliberation. The paper under review argues that you can. Our Mind Matters reviewers, psychologists Alex Haslam and George Loewenstein, differ decisively.

And I get to write about Lucky Jack. The opening of my intro is below — but you should really go read the entire post, which illuminates the richness of the fast-growing discipline of decision science — yet another aspect of the folly of a more famous Decider, George W. Bush.

Here again is the link to the Mind Matters post.

Below, my intro to same:

Introduction to Mind Matters No. 3

Big Decisions: Gut or Head? Hmm….

One of the many pleasures of reading Patrick O’Brian’s splendid Aubrey-Maturin novels, in which the Royal Navy’s Captain Jack Aubrey and surgeon, naturalist, and spy Stephen Maturin navigate challenges nautical, military, medical, musical and philosophical during the Napoleonic era, is witnessing Captain Aubrey’s nearly flawless decisiveness. (At sea, anyway; on land he is one long blunder.) Whether the question regards putting on more sail, engaging a seemingly superior foe, or forestalling mutiny, Aubrey — Lucky Jack, to his friends — seems to always make the right call.

It was not until I read the paper under review here, however, that I recognized what may be Lucky Jack’s greatest gift in the decisions department: Aubrey possesses an uncanny instinct for knowing when he can make a vital decision quickly, with little or no thought, and when he needs to proceed more deliberatively.

This question — to deliberate or not to deliberate — is explored is the study taken up this week, On Making the Right Choice:
The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect
. Our reviewers, psychologist Alex Haslam and economist George Loewenstein, offer decisive opinions about the paper’s strengths and weaknesses, and their deliberations illuminate both the possibilities and the difficulties of the fast-growing discipline of decision science. Whom you most agree with is something you’ll have to decide — once, that is, you’ve decided how much to think about it.


  1. #1 Curt
    February 6, 2007

    Big fan of the Aubrey-Maturin novels. Have to disagree with you about Lucky Jack, though. His motto, like many of his non-fictional contemporaries, follows the words of Lord Nelson, spoken at some famous naval battle (trafalgar? nile?): “Nevermind manoeuvers, always go straight at ’em.” Sure, this method of decision making earns Aubrey immense success at sea, where the heat of the moment is nearly always upon him. Perhaps, too, the Royal Navy owes much of its success during the Napoleonic Wars to Nelson’s pervasive addage.
    On the other hand, like Mr. Dobbs mentions, Aubrey’s tactics lead to spectacular failure on land, where his rash decisions seem to lead him often to debtor’s prison, duels, marital problems, and politics fiascos: apparently par for a navy captain in english society in the early 1800s.
    As Mr. Haslam says, “The issue here is that when political decision-makers err, the fault typically lies less in their psychology or decision-making style than in their politics.” Throughout the series, Captain Aubrey expresses unfailing, unblinking, and unthinking allegiance to everything England, even to the backwards english society on land that nearly always screws him over.
    Stephen Maturin, Aubrey’s counterpart, on the other hand, is the ultimate deliberator. Much of the narrative devoted to Maturin reveals his struggle to justify working as a spy against the tyrant Napoleon, whilst working for the English government; a backwards, hypocritical, and vastly discriminatory government that nearly collapsed on itself in face of Napoleon. Maturin’s deliberation and criticism for himself and his official superiors leads to immense success in politics and war time intelligence, but to disaster at sea.
    It would be interesting to pair off the past historical leaders of the last century: Who would be the best Aubreys, the best Maturins, and who successfully went either direction when the time called for it? Haslam mentioned Kennedy. But I was thinking Guevara and Castro would be the perfect 20th Century Aubrey and Maturin. Maybe the other way around.

  2. #2 David Dobbs
    February 8, 2007

    I don’t want to make TOO much of Aubrey as an ideal decision-making model. But while he did favor in tactics the Go Right At Em approach, my point was that — in the realm in which did things well, and in which he bore prime responsibility for the fate of his ship and crew — he generally did quite well not merely executing actions, but in making decisions both of the quick-right-now variety and of a more lengthy, deliberative sort. Many decisions in battle, of course, he had to make instantaneously. But he also had others that did not have to be made instantly, and (at sea, anyway) he seemed to know which ones he needed to mull over carefully, and knew as well when he would gain by asking for counsel from others. At least, so I seem to remember him doing on quite a few occasions during the 20.5 novels of the series.

    Thus my use of him to introduce the Mind Matters post on decision-making, which addressed the issue of whether and when it’s good to proceed deliberately with decisions. As to Aubrey’s politics … well, oKAY, yes, they weren’t so great; Maturin was miles ahead of him there. But he was one hell of a sailor and a pretty good captain. And now gone! Damn!! Lucky Jack, we hardly knew ye.

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