11 min read ⌚
Do you want to learn what stands behind each of your decisions?
Jonah Lehrer uncovers that and so much more in:
Who Should Read “How We Decide”? And Why?
How We Decide is one of a few essential and popular books dealing with our decision-making process.
If not, please, have a look at all of them.
About Jonah Lehrer
Jonah Lehrer is an American author.
A Rhodes scholar, he published three bestselling non-fiction books by the age of 30 – Proust Was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide, and Imagine – and was widely deemed a successor to Malcolm Gladwell in more aspects than one.
However, from 2012 onward, it was discovered that Lehrer had recycled his work, plagiarized colleagues, and misquoted other authors.
Since then, both How We Decide and Imagine have been recalled from the shelves, and his final book, A Book About Love, has met with negative reviews.
Find out more at www.jonahlehrer.com.
“How We Decide PDF Summary”
As the title suggests, Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide explores the science behind decision-making, one of the numerous books to do so in the last decade – as we have implied in our Who Should Read section above.
Lehrer’s book opens with a very indicative epigraph, which we feel is apt and relevant enough to be quoted in full.
It’s taken from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and it goes like this:
Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.
Well, that’s precisely what How We Decide is all about: those unimportant places in your brain hemispheres that make your decisions for you – even when you’re so sure that you’re in control.
Don’t believe us?
Believe our summary of Lehrer’s book.
Chapter 1: The Quarterback in the Pocket
As you can see below, this article was published just one day after Super Bowl LIII – the most boring one in recent history – ended, and in a somewhat expected manner: the Patriots defeating the Rams and Tom Brady, once again, lifting the Super Bowl trophy.
Coincidentally, Lehrer’s book begins with a recollection of Super Bowl XXXVI, contested by the same two teams and concluded in a much the same manner.
The only differences: the Rams, the Greatest Show on Turf, were the runaway favorites back in 2002 (not that they weren’t favorites this year as well), and Tom Brady was just a back-up QB for the Patriots, expected to be the Hall of Famer that he is now by absolutely no one.
After all, he was the 199th draft pick (in Round 6!) just two years before that and was deemed to lack “great physical stature and strength” in the Pro Football Weekly draft report.
The report did get one thing right: Brady, it said, excels at decision-making.
As you know full well, the NFL has a way to check how much with a test: the Wonderlic test.
Brady’s score: 33.
Not bad, considering that it’s twice as much as Dan Marino (16) and a third more than Brett Favre (22); however, certainly not as good as Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 48 (in 9 minutes) or Jason Maas’ 43!
But why are Brady, Marino, and Favre the record-holders?
Because, says Lehrer, the Wonderlic test is somewhat flawed.
Simply put, it sees decision-making as something done with the rational part of our brains; the truth is, that’s merely half of the truth.
You see, our brain consists of both a limbic (emotional) part and a neo-cortex (logical) segment; and we use both to make a decision.
Let’s see how.
Chapter 2: The Predictions of Dopamine
The reason why Tom Brady is so good at making the right decisions when in the pocket – i.e., when he has to make a decision in two or three seconds – is because in addition to analyzing and remembering thousands of plays before the game, he is also capable of deactivating the part which studied and absorbed them during it.
In a nutshell, that’s the story of making the right decisions.
Contrary to what Plato and Descartes believed and advocated, it isn’t right to always think a decision through; when you need to make a decision in a split second – you should always go with your guts.
You know why?
Because your emotions are genuinely empirical as well; after all, they too have evolved during a period of hundreds of thousands of years.
And you owe your competence to something called “the dopamine feedback system,” which functions by detecting subtle patterns that you’d otherwise fail to notice.
Dopamine neurons “assimilate all the data that we can’t consciously comprehend. And then, once they come up with a set of refined predictions about how the world works, they translate these predictions into emotions.”
This was demonstrated by Antonio Damasio in the Iowa Gambling Task, popularized in his aptly titled book Descartes’ Error.
In short, thanks to dopamine releases, people pick up the patterns in a rigged game of cards even though they consciously have no idea what the pattern is.
People who suffer from orbitofrontal cortex dysfunctions, however, have problems doing this.
The orbitofrontal cortex is related to emotions and reward systems in decision-making processes!
Chapter 3: Fooled by a Feeling
But, be aware: your emotional brain is not perfect and, unfortunately, it is programmed in such a manner that if you adhere to its rules too much of the time, it will undoubtedly lead you on the wrong path.
There are at least three:
• First of all, as we suggested above, the emotional brain is preprogrammed to see patterns; however, as Taleb taught us well (or at least tried to teach us), it can be easily fooled by randomness. Gambling streaks or hot hands in basketball are not real: they are just your emotional brain seeing patterns where there are none.
• Secondly, as Tversky and Kahneman showed us, the brain is much more interested in avoiding losses than winning; for the brain, “bad is stronger than good,” because even though winning releases dopamine, losing activates the amygdala which in turn makes you feel fear and anxiety;
• Finally, due to the power of dopamine, the emotional brain always favors short-term rewards and disregards long-term costs; dopamine is fired three or four times the usual amount when you win something unexpectedly; and now you know why you keep gambling even after you’ve lost everything.
In a nutshell, the emotional brain keeps you focused – and sometimes this can be a problem.
Chapter 4: The Uses of Reason
Of course, the neocortex, the rational part of your brain, is here to help.
You see, being focused means ignoring many things which don’t matter and directing all of your energy only on the ones which do.
However, what if you’re focused on the wrong thing? Well, then it’s almost certain that you’ll make not only wrong but the wrongest decision.
Think of the last time you panicked about something.
A few things happened inside you, the most important of which was perceptual narrowing: you ignored everything but one thing.
It usually works like this: earthquake = significant threat = I need to run away.
However, your emotional brain is far from correct in this case: you can try to run away from a dog, but you can’t run away from an earthquake.
In cases such as these, in order to think straight – science tells us – you need to regulate your emotions.
How do you do that?
The answer is surprisingly simple: by thinking about them. The prefrontal cortex allows each of us to contemplate his or her own mind, a talent psychologists call metacognition. We know when we are angry; every emotional state comes with self-awareness attached, so that an individual can try to figure out why he’s feeling what he’s feeling. If the particular feeling makes no sense—if the amygdala is simply responding to a loss frame, for example—then it can be discounted. The prefrontal cortex can deliberately choose to ignore the emotional brain.
So, in a way, science has vindicated Aristotle who argued, in Nicomachean Ethics that “the key to cultivating virtue was learning how to manage one’s passions.”
It’s not about getting angry; it’s about getting angry to the right and at the right time.
Chapter 5: Choking on Thought
Well, that’s the foundational one of the few flaws your rational brain is intrinsically peppered with.
Let’s look at the most important ones:
• The thinking mind works best when working with small amounts of data; you can remember the last seven things someone says, plus or minus two; anything more than that, overburdens your rational brain and inspires it to oversimplify things and, consequently, make mistakes because of it;
• There is such thing as TMI: your rational brain makes a decision based on merely small chunks of data and uses everything else to support the initial decision;
• Just as your emotional brain is too constricted, your rational brain is too open: it can’t ignore any information, no matter how irrelevant; that’s why it’s pretty open to suggestions;
• As you have experienced so many times in your life, your rational brain tires easily;
• Perhaps the strangest thing about your rational brain: it’s illogical. Here’s a great example: would you drive 20 miles to save $5 on a calculator worth $15? You probably would. Now, would you do the same to save $5 on a $125 jacket? You probably won’t. Even though, $5 is $5 either way.
Chapter 6: The Moral Mind
We mentioned Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics above, one of the foundational books on the moral mind.
What does science have to say about it?
Well, strangely enough, that no matter how much you try, your moral decisions are usually made by the emotional part of your brain; the prefrontal cortex usually provides the reasons for it post festum.
What does this mean in a nutshell?
A few things:
• First of all, that data and stats would never work as much as something directly related to your emotions; Paul Slovic, for example, discovered that one photograph of a malnourished child inspired people to give much more money (about twice as much) than a whole poster of very real and frightening facts;
• Statistics have no effect on our moral decisions – they are all about sympathy; in a way, Stalin was right: as far as our brains are concerned, a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.
• Mother Theresa said this better: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will;” the case of Kitty Genovese is evidence of this.
• If you can’t see the person you’re unfair to – you will almost certainly have no sympathy for him or her.
Chapter 7: The Brain is an Argument
Inside your brain, there’s a constant argument between different parts of it.
But that’s a great thing!
When there is none, then you’re a close-minded person, an ideologue, someone who is capable of rationalizing any fact to fit your own system of beliefs.
Since that’s the worst thing that can happen to you, it’s best to encourage inner discord and try to test your opinions from time to time.
We learn best through trial and error.
Chapter 8: The Poker Hand
Speaking of –
No matter how much you try, you’ll never be able to avoid errors; you’re simply not designed to.
However, you can minimize them by following these simple strategies:
• When you need to make an easy decision, then it’s better to never go with your guts; do spend some time reflecting and analyzing; however, don’t overthink it either;
• When you need to make a difficult decision, then the best strategy is to gather all the information you can, absorb it and then forget all about it; make the decision after a while, in a split second, using nothing but your intuition.
Key Lessons from “How We Decide”
1. Your Brain Consists of Both an Emotional and a Rational Part
2. You Need Both Your Brain and Your Emotions to Make a Decision
3. Think Over Easy Decision; for Difficult Ones – Go with Your Guts
Your Brain Consists of Both an Emotional and a Rational Part
Plato and Descartes believed that the reason why we make so many mistakes in our lives when making a decision is that we don’t use our rational selves as much as necessary.
However, science has found out that this is not true: in addition to the neocortex, the limbic brain (which deals with our emotions) plays a large part in our decision-making processes.
Don’t believe us?
Well, people who have suffered injuries in the limbic brain are incapable of making a decision.
You Need Both Your Brain and Your Emotions to Make a Decision
If you use your rational brain too much, then there’s a good chance that you’ll be fooled by irrelevant suggestions or/and you’ll eventually choke.
If, however, you exclusively use your emotional brain, then you might start seeing patterns all around you and start preferring illogical short-term gains despite the long-term price.
The key to making a good decision lies in the balance between the two: regulating your emotions when necessary and letting them run riot when not.
“People who are more rational,” says Benedetto de Martino, “don’t perceive emotion less, they just regulate it better.”
Think Over Easy Decision; for Difficult Ones – Go with Your Guts
When making an easy decision, always prefer the rational part of your brain to your guts.
When making a difficult one, however – to quote Ap Dijksterhuis –
Use your conscious mind to acquire all the information you need for making a decision. But don’t try to analyze the information with your conscious mind. Instead, go on holiday while your unconscious mind digests it. Whatever your intuition then tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice.
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“How We Decide Quotes”A lie told well is just as good as the truth. Click To Tweet If monkeys have taught us anything, it's that you've got to learn how to love before you learn how to live. (Via Harlow) Click To Tweet People who are more rational don't perceive emotion less, they just regulate it better. (Via De Martino) Click To Tweet Trusting one's emotions requires constant vigilance; intelligent intuition is the result of deliberate practice. Click To Tweet The world is more random than we can imagine. That's what our emotions can't understand. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Despite all the negative publicity after the plagiarism and quote fabrication scandal, How We Decide has its merits.
And we believe that you’ll find at least parts of it engaging and thought-provoking.
Definitely worth a read.
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