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How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
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Jul 18, 2012

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Read in July, 2012

There are a number of popular press books that review the state of cognitive science and end up citing the same research, using the same examples, telling the same stories, forming the same conclusions. It’s information worth rehashing, but is rehash nonetheless. Because Lehrer is a journalist, not a scientist, I expected more of the same. He did go over some of the same information, but he also did something new to me that made this book worth reading. He did a decent job of trying to close the intellect-emotion circle, reconciling the paradoxical relationship between pure reason and emotional instincts. I’ve heard a number of authors pay homage to the “intelligence” of intuitive thought—things like gut instinct, intuition, reflexive responses—all stuff I tend to distrust. Yes, intuition has many successes and can outperform reason at times, even at critical times. But these authors make little effort to explain the phenomenon. It ends up being presented as a kind of faith-based science, a miracle of our brilliant neural anatomy. My “intuition” is to reject that and I think poorly of books like Blink that make such a submission. But Lehrer tries to get behind the science that explains intuition. He also discusses how reason practiced in the complete absence of emotion can be impotent. Emotion sometimes carries with it motivation and desire and a call to action, while reason can be timelessly pensive and coldly indifferent. Reason can also turn out to be too exhaustive a process, the cost of which can exceed the benefit when dealing with minor decisions, or major decision with short deadlines.

But there are two major problems with intuition, only one of which Lehrer addresses. He is clear that intuition can lead us down the wrong path because it is subject to an array of cognitive biases. What he doesn’t discuss is that intuition is an attractive nuisance—it’s enticing because it’s so easy. Seat-of-the-pants decision-making saves us the effort of having to think out a problem, leaving us all the more susceptible to cognitive biases. In his brilliant essay Solitude and Leadership, William Deresiewicz said, “I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. …I need time to think about it… to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.”

Lehrer attempts to tidy up the contradiction between reason and emotion by recommending that we listen to our instincts but that we also scrutinize them and test them for biases, and that we also recognize the limitations of reason. So Star Trek’s Mr. Spok had it all wrong. He should not have suppressed his human side, but embraced it. …But, if he were perfectly logical, wouldn’t he have recognized that and acted more human? Isn’t it purely rational to factor in some degree of irrationality into our most rational thoughts? The circle remains unclosed.

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