Ms.pegasus's Reviews > How We Decide

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
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's review
Apr 03, 2012

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bookshelves: neuroscience, nonfiction
Recommended to Ms.pegasus by: Kevin of Goodreads list of "to read"
Recommended for: Amateur pilots; those interested in a neuroscience introduction, but prepared to explore further
Read in March, 2012 , read count: 1

Intuition is frequently dismissed as irrational, an impulse based on emotion. Lehrer argues that despite centuries of philosophical commentary about the rational, it is emotion that drives much of our decision-making. Moreover, he practices what he preaches. The opening chapters are drawn from real life: Tom Brady at the 2002 Super Bowl; radar operator Lt. Commander Michael Riley stationed on the HMS Gloucester off the coast of Kuwait in 1991; smoke-jumper Wag Dodge caught in a deadly Montana forest fire on August 5, 1949, and United Airlines captain Al Haynes on Flight #232 on route to Chicago on July 19, 1989 when the hydraulics fail in his aircraft. It is no accident that these emotionally charged situations are some of the most vivid and memorable parts of the book. The numerous psychological experiments, many of them classics, seem pale by comparison.

We assume that good decisions are the result of logic triumphing over emotional distractions. Lehrer examines that assumption. He shows how emotion shapes ethical behaviors such as altruism and empathy. Sociopaths lack the capacity for emotion, and therefore have no ethical guidelines. They can rationalize any atrocity. “Thinking outside the box,” may actually be the emotional brain selecting a previously unrelated set of facts and discovering a new and powerful pattern. In such cases, too many facts can actually impede the decision-making pathway.

Lehrer's focus is on psychological studies and neuro-anatomy. In this way, he is able to simplify his narrative and make a more convincing case to the reader. For example, his description of Parkinson's Disease touches briefly on the results of decreased dopamine production. His choice is to describe in detail the symptoms of the disease, and the gambling addiction behaviors of those treated with an overdose of dopamine receptor agonists. He does not wander into a discussion of how the circuit of dopamine production, transport, and absorption work to simultaneously break down impulse control and stimulate thrill-seeking behaviors. The details of cell chemistry are not his focus of interest. This is both the strength and weakness of the book. It is intriguing to discover unexpected human behaviors, but observation can often lead to convenient but erroneous inferences. It might be interesting to poll readers of this book about the inferences they have drawn. How would you proceed to test them? The purpose of this book is to summarize some of the astonishing things we think we know. The closing chapters on applying the book toward making better decisions run on the fumes of tautology. Emotional decisions are good until they stop being good.

In conclusion, those looking for a deeper look at the science will find this a tantalizing introduction – an appetizer rather than a meal.

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