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How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
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Nov 06, 11

bookshelves: nonfic-science
Read in July, 2009

An accessible, fun book on behavioral psychology, with forays into neuroscience. Lehrer's main thesis is that the "irrational"/"emotional" parts of the human brain work in collaboration with the "rational" parts in decision-making, the former exerting a strong, hidden influence on split-second choices, spending habits, political viewpoints, valuation of consumer goods, and even supposedly logical behaviors like morality. Both aspects of the mind depend on each other for optimal function, but each can cause crucial mistakes under certain conditions. Of course, these ideas will be familiar if you've taken a basic psych class or have read Malcomb Gladwell's Blink, but, like Gladwell, Lehrer is good at bringing together a variety of interesting case studies and using them to illustrate his points in a compelling way.

However, as with Gladwell's books, the intent is more about introducing a field to a wide audience than providing a rigorous or cohesive platform of understanding. Most of the insights don't go beyond a basic level, and there is the sense that Lehrer is using scientific and philosophical concepts a bit loosely -- he doesn't even define what he means by "rational". Even some of the case studies themselves misrepresent key assumptions for the sake of easy argument (his section examining why people buy bonds versus stocks makes its point, but ignores several logical reasons for the former choice).

Those criticisms aside, though, I enjoyed the book and thought Lehrer did a good job of illustrating how our more primitive feelings interact with the more analytical parts of our brains, and what happens when something disturbs their harmony, either temporarily or in a medical sense (as with autism). I now have a more architectural understanding of why intuition is so powerful, how people get addicted to gambling, how the minds of serial killers are different, and how too much thought can overload our decision-making abilities.
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