How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

***See caveat at the bottom of this post***

I have become something of a fan of pop science/psychology/business books. Mostly those dealing with decision-making and communication.  I have enjoyed books from the Heath brothers and Joseph T. Hallinan among others.  So when I saw How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer in audiobook format at the local library I picked it up.

Cover of "How We Decide"
Cover of How We Decide

Since Plato, philosophers have described the decision-making process as either rational or emotional: we carefully deliberate or we “blink” and go with our gut. But as scientists break open the mind’s black box with the latest tools of neuroscience, they’re discovering that this is not how the mind works. Our best decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason—and the precise mix depends on the situation. When buying a house, for example, it’s best to let our unconscious mull over the many variables. But when we’re picking a stock, intuition often leads us astray. The trick is to determine when to lean on which part of the brain, and to do this, we need to think harder (and smarter) about how we think.

Jonah Lehrer arms us with the tools we need, drawing on cutting-edge research by Daniel Kahneman, Colin Camerer, and others, as well as the real-world experiences of a wide range of “deciders”—from airplane pilots and hedge fund investors to serial killers and poker players. Lehrer shows how people are taking advantage of the new science to make better television shows, win more football games, and improve military intelligence. His goal is to answer two questions that are of interest to just about anyone, from CEOs to firefighters: How does the human mind make decisions? And how can we make those decisions better?

I listened to this in the car the last few weeks and really enjoyed it. It turned out to be a nice blend of research, explanation/analysis and anecdote. This blend adds some suspense and human interest to the heavier aspects of the subject and it helps keep you interested rather than overwhelmed by the science and research.

With the caveat that this is pop science to some degree, it offers an interesting education on how the brain works and how we can use this developing scientific knowledge to make better decisions or put ourselves in position to make better decision.

At the risk of oversimplifying myself, Lehrer argues you should use emotional/instinctual processes for areas where you have built up a lot data through experience and practice. Don’t over think when your brain has learned a great deal by repetition and study.

Use the more rational side of your brain to compensate for emotional reactions that might lead you astray (the tendency of risking too much after a painful loss) or in cases where there is not the danger of information overload (the purchase of a simple product where the lower price is probably the best solution).

Lehrer makes a strong case that the age-old concept of calm wise rationality versus dangerous emotions is a deceptive oversimplification and contrary to how the brain actually works.  As the blurb above states “Our best decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason—and the precise mix depends on the situation.”

A recommended read for anyone interested in decision-making, leadership or the brain.

***In preparing this review, I realized that Lehrer was the subject of some controversy and scandal in the past. Read the articles below to get a sense of the accusations and misdeeds. I am not sure if this calls into question any of the fact or ideas in How We Decide. At first glance, I don’t think so but you can decide that for yourself.***

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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