How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

I watched Jonah Lehrer on the Colbert Report a few months ago, and thought he did a really good job. So, when we were offered free copies of his new book, How We Decide, I asked for one, even though it’s not my usual sort of thing.

The main point of the book is that what you think you know about thinking is wrong. Through both interesting historical anecdotes and summaries of the latest in cognitive science research, Lehrer shows that our usual decision-making process is nowhere near as rational as we would like to believe. And, moreover, that’s not such a bad thing– without contributions from the “emotional brain,” humans tend to be either paralyzed by indecision, or amoral monsters.

With its counterintuitive premise and engaging anecdotes, this book is clearly working the same vein as Malcolm Gladwell. So, why is it that I liked this book quite a bit, while Gladwell tends to annoy me? According to the book, it’s impossible to really say for sure, but I can offer some rationalizations.

The biggest reason is that I am not beset by Jonah Lehrer fanboys. If Lehrer gets to be as inescapable as Gladwell, with countless people talking about his latest book or article in that breathless “oh, what a visionary genius” tone, I’ll probably get just as sick of his work.

There’s also the fact that Lehrer mostly avoids topics that I know anything about. There’s a tiny bit of discussion of physics in the final chapter, where he talks about physicist-turned-poker-pro Michael Binger, but nothing in the chapter relies all that heavily on claims about physics, so there’s no chance for it to go wrong. He could be as mistaken about some of his claims as Gladwell is when he talks about basketball, but I have no way of knowing.

I think, though, that what ultimately makes this book more appealing to me is that there’s a certain modesty to the claims that strikes me as more scientific than the typical Gladwell article. Lehrer doesn’t ever claim, or even hint, that he or any of his subjects have the Answer to anything– he’s quite clear that what science has found is that the process of decision-making is more complicated than we think it is, and that we’re only scratching the surface. Even his ultimate recommendation– that you should spend some time thinking about how you’re thinking about things when making decisions– is a modest one.

It’s that lack of hubris (or at least perceived hubris) that makes this book work better for me than Gladwell’s stuff. I think. It might just be that this book has ice cream on the cover, and I like ice cream. Mmmmm… ice cream.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a book about cognition and decision-making, I recommend this one. It’s smart, it covers a wide range of topics, and both the science and the anecdotes are charmingly written. It’s a good, fun read, and it will also make you think. About thinking. And we could all stand to do more of that.

Comments

  1. #1 jay
    May 14, 2009

    I have been convinced for some time that much of our decision making is made in the brain processes unreachable to our conscious mind, and that at best, our recently evolved ‘rational brain’ can inform (but more often simply rationalizes) decisions made elsewhere.

    I suspect also that when we do make a decision entirely in our ‘rational brain’ the results are less satisfying than one made at a gut level.

    Resarchers are often puzzled by seemingly irrational market behavior and wonder why people don’t all choose cars based on efficiency and reliability. But there are other unspoken calculations at work, like self image and status which are not really irrelevant. Deep down inside some sense that an expensive purchase that brings status (a very resource expsnsive commodity in evolutionary terms) ultimately connects to mating opportunities (hence the numbers of attractive women in car ads –cars don’t directly contribute to mating, but status does)

  2. #2 Cody
    May 14, 2009

    According to the book, it’s impossible to really say for sure, but I can offer some rationalizations.

    Obligatory xkcd: Correlation.

  3. #3 MRW
    May 14, 2009

    I also just finished this book a couple days ago, and thought it was great. I can’t stand Gladwell, either.

  4. #4 Tristram Brelstaff
    May 14, 2009

    It might just be that this book has ice cream on the cover, and I like ice cream. Mmmmm… ice cream.

    Did your dog help you with this post?

  5. #5 Ewan
    May 14, 2009

    I gave this book as the prize to the highest-scoring and most-involved students in my class this semester. Glad it’s good!

  6. #6 Elif
    May 18, 2009

    Very nice review. :) Made me curious, I’ll check it out.

  7. #7 Matthew Smith
    August 6, 2009

    I wonder what Lehrer would say about our tendencies to prefer certain writers or pundits over others. Much of what seems like reason might turn out to be rationalization.

  8. #8 Ian Clements
    May 13, 2011

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but if our conscious decision-making is besides the point/a waste of time, what are we doing when we do consciously decide? And why are we so doing it anyway?

    Just go with the flow? Something’s wrong here.

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