Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

How We Decide

Rate this book
The first book to use the unexpected discoveries of neuroscience to help us make the best decisions.

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 use the different parts 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 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?

259 pages, Hardcover

First published February 9, 2009

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Jonah Lehrer

9 books706 followers

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
12,402 (30%)
4 stars
14,037 (35%)
3 stars
9,633 (24%)
2 stars
2,512 (6%)
1 star
1,460 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,534 reviews
Profile Image for Heather.
380 reviews48 followers
February 26, 2009
As I am not a scientist like some other reviewers, I found this book to be quite enlightening. It was well-written and entertaining, as well.

Things I learned:

People need to use both rational thought and emotion to make the best decisions.

We need to make our own mistakes because that is how our brains get rewired not to do it again. Emotions turn mistakes into educational events and then use those lessons unconsciously.

We get cranky when we're hungry and tired because the prefrontal cortex is the first to lose energy and consequently the ability to suppress negative emotions. Teenagers are more impulsive because the prefrontal cortex is also the last part of the brain to develop, and ADHD happens when kids' brains are slow to develop.

Abuse is repeated among generations because abused children's brains are permanently damaged/fail to create the appropriate connections and never mature morally.

Rationality can be a liability when it leads to rationalization. Embrace uncertainty: entertain competing hypotheses and remind yourself of what you don't know.

Difficult decisions (those with numerous factors involved) are best made by taking in all the facts, sleeping on it, and ultimately relying on your feelings. "Even when you choose to ignore your emotions, they are still a valuable source of input."
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,279 reviews21.3k followers
December 24, 2009
For the first half of this book I was rather annoyed. The problem was that I had heard most of the stories before and I was thinking that what I should do is write a ‘how to write a popular book on decision making’ style review. As with anyone who has found themselves on Good Reads for a while, I now can’t read a book without thinking, at the same time, how I’m going to review it.

You know, in this type of book it seems there has to be an American Football story, a plane crash or two or maybe even three, it might help if there is something about jam or tomato ketchup or the great Pepsi/Coke Wars, perhaps also a digression into why cheap wine actually tastes as good as expensive wine, followed, perhaps, by a story about someone in an actual war making a remarkably lucky guess that the blip on the radar screen is an incoming enemy missile rather than a friendly plane returning to base and then, while we are on wars, the book will probably need something about an Arab-Israeli war (the Yom Kippur one seems to be a perennial favourite when it comes to decision making texts). There are also a list of psychological tests that need to be discussed – emotionally depraved monkeys with their wire mothers (to be compared with Romanian orphans and psychopaths), the endless bowl of soup test always rates a mention, as does the lost movie ticket dilemma as to whether you would pay for another one.

My annoyance, then, was around the fact that I felt I had heard every single example in this book at least once before. I kept thinking that this subject of the psychology of judgement and decision making doesn’t seem to have moved along much since the book The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making was published last century.

I thought my review would say that this book is not a bad summary of the field, but any one of a number of other books is probably just as good. I stopped worrying about what I would say in my review about half way through and that is why this book has been given five stars rather than the three I was thinking of giving it.

Look – I have an irrational annoyance that seems to develop when I read too many case studies. I think it is because the case study is the favourite ploy of the self-help book. The long and dramatic case studies that start the early chapters of this book were probably too long and too dramatic and just made me think that I’m probably never going to be a quarterback. And I guess that stranger things have happened, but I also doubt that even following the worst of circumstances (and we can take it for granted that I virtually never eat seafood, so according to the plots of a thousand disaster films I am likely to be the only person left who is physically fit enough to land the plane) that even so I’ll never actually be the one left to do so. What these case studies gain in dramatic effect they tend to lose in, well, relevance. I think, ‘oh God, he is really going to talk to me for hours about some guy who is good a throwing a ball’. The only person I don’t mind talking to me about American rules football or plane crashes is Malcolm Gladwell – but that is because I love Gladwell’s writing so much that sometimes I worry that he could write an article saying that Hitler has been grossly maligned by history and was actually quite a nice guy and I might even be fooled into believing he has a point. So, having said all that and made it clear that there were bits of this book that didn’t work for me, it pains me to say that this book is the book that I wish Gladwell had written rather than Blink.

The premise of Blink is that there are times when you haven’t thought through all of the logical, rational steps, but then, in a blink of the eye, you know stuff. Gladwell’s point is you should trust the stuff you know in that way (that non-rational way) because it is often right. Well, accept when it is wrong – then you shouldn’t trust your instincts. Stating his premise quite so boldly might make the problem with Blink stand out. How can you tell when to trust your gut and when to trust your head? Blink isn’t really very good at answering that dilemma (if dilemma is the right word – you know, limiting our choices to just two makes life nicely black and white, but sometimes life has shades of grey and other times even comes in technicolour).

When this book gets into its stride it runs through the sorts of cognitive errors that we are likely to make when we make decisions. One of the stand out causes of errors we make is loss aversion, that is, we are likely to make bad decisions if we feel we have already made a loss (part of the reason gamblers might bet more after losing a bet – double or nothing anyone?) and we are likely to act differently when things are stated as successes – the drug may cure 40% of patients – than as a loss – if we use this drug up to 60% of patients may die – even if they say exactly the same thing.

The book also says some interesting things about how the Golden Rule isn’t actually a gift to the world by Judeo-Christian religion, but is rather a consequence of our being social animals. Empathy is an essential precondition to our living successfully in society and so it didn’t really require a Jesus or Moses to create these rules, all they did was to codify them. This is made clear by the fact that some social monkeys, one can assume they have not met Jesus, also act in accordance with the Golden Rule. Clearly, some Christians are going to find certain parts of this book challenging, but then, it is seeking to explain why we make mistakes on the basis of our biological evolution, so I guess certain Christians are always going to have problems with that.

There are things I really liked about this book. Those are summed up in the last couple of chapters which are worth reading all on their own the next time you are in a book shop (in fact, I think, if I had written this book, I would have started at the end). There is absolutely no harm in reading the Coda before you start reading this book as it will give a wonderful map of where you are going and let’s face it, this is not a murder mystery.

Essentially this book says that there are good and bad times to use your rational brain to make decisions and that there are times when the best decisions you can make are those you will make by relying on your emotions. He says, perhaps counter-intuitively, that the decisions best left to your emotional brain are the ones that are complex and multifaceted – that is, the ones we generally try to solve with our rational brains. Our brains aren’t very good at reasoning through problems like which car should I buy. Problems like that have too many variables – not just which colour looks best, but also should I get side air bags and ABS brakes or what about fuel efficiency and service history, and... His advice is for you to gather facts as you may, but then that you should take a break from ‘thinking’ for a couple of days and then go with your emotions.

It might be easier to follow this advice by looking at when you should make decisions based on reason. Essentially, if the problem can be broken down into numbers (the odds are six to one that…) then reason needs to play a role in your decisions. If the problem has few variables then reason can cope with that and won’t be overloaded. If the problem is sufficiently novel – that is, you are in a situation in which you have never been before, you need to avoid relying on your emotions and you need to try to think.

But you should rely on your emotional (or perhaps automatic is a better word) brain for things you do all of the time. If you have been driving for years don’t try to think about when to lift the clutch and when to take your foot off the brake or you will end up in an accident. Sometimes thinking is the last thing you need to do. You know, it is a matter of ‘use the force Luke’. Having said that, there are also times when your automatic brain will have trapped you into patterns of behaviour which are self-defeating. So, you shouldn’t use your automatic brain then, you should try to think of new ways of doing things.

This book is not trying to tell you that there are times when you should not think at all – it is telling you that you should always think about the decisions you are making and how you are making those decisions, but to also understand that we are human and we ALL tend to rationalise our behaviour (a wonderful book on this subject is Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts) and that if you can possibly do it, seeing when you were wrong and trying to learn from those times is as close to being godlike as we humans get.

There is a fascinating discussion in this book about some guy testing the accuracy of political pundits. My understanding of what happened is that a psychologist asked a series of both right and left wing commentators what they believed was likely to happen next – the alternatives were phrased so as to give three possible outcomes (things will get worse, things will get better, things will stay the same). The result was that virtually all of the social commentators did worse than chance in their guesses. That is, you would have done better by asking a monkey to pick the answer out of a hat. And it didn’t matter if they were right wing scum or left wing loonies, what determined how wrong they were going to be was how confident and certain they were about their prediction. The more certain, the more wrong.

The more open you are to the possibility you may be wrong the more likely you are to be right. The more prepared you are to listen to others, the less likely you are to stuff up. The more consciously people set up ways in which their views will be challenged the more likely they are not to be fooled by their own bullshit. It is The Wisdom of Crowds again.

If that doesn’t make this book worth five stars, I’ve no idea what would.
Profile Image for Carly.
456 reviews184 followers
Shelved as 'no-thanks'
July 15, 2013
False attributions
and self-plagiarism
and plain old plagiarism...
oh, my!
I'm not a journalist; honestly, I have trouble understanding the ethical dilemmas of "self-plagiarism." Yes, I understand that one should cite oneself, but I can also understand why this would fail to occur to an author.

But seriously?
Plagiarising Gladwell?
Making up quotes from Bob Dylan?
Taking quotes from Wikipedia and pretending that they were interviews?
What makes one decide to do that?
Do explain.
Profile Image for Steve Van Slyke.
Author 1 book39 followers
April 20, 2012
I probably would not have read this book had it not been recommended by someone whose opinions I respect and the fact that the Kindle version was selling for only $2.99 at the time.

I'm really glad now that I didn't miss it. Most of the science books I choose to read are interesting but very few are also what I would call “entertaining”. This book was. As other reviewers have mentioned I too am leery when I start to read a book that immediately launches into a case study, because this can sometimes be a sign of lazy writing. But in this case I found the examples fascinating (I had not read about them, or had forgotten them) and illustrative of the points the author was trying to make.

It's also always great fun when you get to shoot down some old experts—in this case Plato, Kant, Freud and others.

I always assumed—no, knew—that there was a war going on inside my head between the rational and emotional parts of my brain. Now I learn that these 2-ways can be 3-ways and more, that several parts of the brain may weigh in on certain types of decisions.

There's a wealth of information here that is useful as well as enlightening. In fact there is so much that I fear I may fall victim to one of the decision-making hazards the author discusses in which the rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, becomes overwhelmed by too much information. The basic message though is simple: the key thing is to think about when making a decision is how you are thinking.

It's nice when you get to learn something about the latest advances in a field of science and find yourself being entertained at the same time. And who knows, you might even make some good decisions.

Profile Image for carol..
1,502 reviews7,551 followers
March 29, 2015
03/28/14 Update.
I don't know where this review went, but I'm putting it back.

11/09/13 Update.

This is why Goodreads needs to separate itself from Amazon, and why Amazon sucks: http://www.amazon.com/How-We-Decide-J...

An average of four stars, the "most helpful negative review" is three stars, and the main page and 'negative review' doesn't mentions Lehrer's little plagiarism problem or the fact that the publisher recalled the book--they actually offered refunds. This is why I don't bother with Amazon reviews, and this is why GR will go the way of the dodo.
http://www.amazon.com/How-We-Decide-J...

7/14/13 Update.

What to do, what to do, what to do. The book is being pulled by the publisher and refunds offered. Clearly, something's wrong. I loved the ideas, even if they weren't Lehrer's, but now I'm afraid he deserves a permanent ban from my to be read pile. I find myself questioning how much was fabricated because he wanted it to be true rather than because there was support for it being true.

Self-plagiarism isn't a problem to me as much as the blatant made-up quotes (see link on Bob Dylan), quotes suspiciously congruent to other authors (see Malcolm Gladwell connection), using Wikipedia as a source and furiously lying through his teeth when discovered.

Thanks to Carly's review for awareness of the issue.

**********************************************

Very fascinating book. Lots of insight into the human mind written in very accessible language. Does not commit the cardinal sin of listing many case studies and then drawing conclusions; instead Lehrer helps make neurobiology and scientific studies accessible by explaining the study and then giving a case study in action. I plan on purchasing this book at some point so that I can think more about the concepts covered and their implications in my own life. He covers basically, how we make decisions, using an emotional brain, a logical brain (aka prefrontal cortex) as well as other areas of the brain. Ultimately by providing more insight into the decision making process, he is hoping to empower us to make better decisions for ourselves.

The first part on emotional brain helped me understand even more why clicker training is so powerful, another area of interest for me. He later makes the interesting point that it is the rational brain we should consult for small, less global decisions (his "which jam" examples) because it is well equipped to parse out the small number of variables needed to decide. This is opposed to the emotional brain, which is actually better equipped to make large global decisions (new couch? which car?) that have multiple areas of data of varying importance. He shows us a little about our desire to find patterns, and how this leads us into decision making traps in finances and gambling. Aversion to loss and our desire to be certain are also fascinating concepts in this book. I also liked that he gave a short chapter at the end summing up the different chapters, and how this information can be integrated into the reader's life.

Occasionally some of the examples are too detailed or too long to make his point as well as they could. The section on gambling, for instance, contained an explanation of a kind of poker. Not being a gambler, I had a hard time following the technical terms he used throughout the pages of the example. I suspect, however, that many examples of sports figures and gambling are meant to attract male readers.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
801 reviews2,503 followers
June 19, 2012
This is one of the most entertaining "pop-psychology" books that I've read. It is filled with anecdotes and stories that illustrate the main point of the book: the emotional side of our brains makes our decisions for us, and the rational side of our brains helps justify our decisions. Sometimes, depending on our rational thoughts can get in the way of making good decisions, and can actually be a detriment. A good example is the physicist who got interested in playing poker professionally. He understood all of the probabilities very well, and did OK in the poker tournaments--up to a certain point. But he could not progress further, until he learned how the emotional side of his brain was needed in poker. Then he became a world-class poker player.

The book contains some incredible stories about people who are in imminent danger; an airplane pilot faced with the loss of all hydraulic power in his DC10, a group of firefighters trapped by a wildfire advancing toward them at 30 mph. They stopped rationalizing their situations, and started thinking intuitively, in order to survive.

Too much information can impede good judgment. Several psychology studies are described, where a little bit of information leads to a good judgment--say, investing in stocks, or accepting applicants to college--but a lot of information leads to a poor judgment. The reason is that our rational brains are limited by how many pieces of information we can juggle in our minds simultaneously. We find it difficult to consciously sort out which information should be given greater weight in our decisions.

Other stories in the book show how people form a world-concept, and then choose to ignore overwhelming evidence that casts doubt on their concept. Sometimes we use the rational side of our brain to justify our disregard of the evidence.

This book is an easy, fun read; highly recommended.
Profile Image for Saadia  B..
178 reviews60 followers
October 4, 2021
3.5 Stars

The brain doesn't exist in a vacuum all decisions are made in the context of the real world. Dopamine neurons are immensely useful, they help predict events that are actually predictable but they can also lead us astray especially when we are confronted with randomness. The problem with panic is that it narrows one's thoughts. It reduces awareness to the most essential facts, the most basic instincts. When you overthink at the wrong moment, you cut yourself off from the wisdom of your emotions, which are much better at observing actual preferences. You lose the ability to know what you really want.

The anchoring effect is about the brain's spectacular inability to dismiss irrelevant information. Morality is nothing but a series of choices about how we treat other people. Whenever possible it's essential to extend the decision-making process and properly consider the argument unfolding inside your head. Bad decisions happen when that mental debate in cut short, when an artificial consensus in imposed on the neural quarrel. Two simple tricks to help ensure that you never let certainty interfere your judgment:
1. Always entertain competing hypotheses
2. Continually remind yourself of what you don't know

The emotional brain is especially useful at helping us make hard decisions. Its massive computational power, its ability to process millions of bits of data in parallel ensures that you can analyze all the relevant information when assessing alternatives. Whenever you make a decision, be aware of the kind of decision you are making and the kind of thought process it requires. The best way to make sure that you are using your brain properly is to study your brain at work, to listen to the argument inside your head.

Blog | YouTube | Instagram | Facebook | LinkedIn
Profile Image for seak.
429 reviews475 followers
February 25, 2015
To this day, this is the book I recommend the most. Partly because I pretty much only read fantasy books and that only works for certain (awesome) people, but mostly because this book does such a good job explaining how the brain works that I still remember much of the book today.

Think Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, but with much better explanations and less exciting writing.

Actually these two books use quite a number of the same studies to make their points, but where Gladwell tends toward obfuscation, How We Decide goes into the science behind how the brain works.

After doing some research on Lehrer for this review, apparently he was caught "self-plagiarizing" some of his earlier work and fabricating quotes from people like Bob Dylan in his book Imagine, resigned from his position at The New Yorker, and more controversy.

I can't really see a point in going further with the review now that I'm not quite sure what to think. I can say, however, that the content is rather similar to Gladwell's Blink if in more depth and that lends itself some credibility with both reaching similar conclusions.

Stars to be determined... (i.e., I'm leaving them how I left it)
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,891 reviews1,207 followers
September 11, 2011
N.B. September 2013: So apparently this book is a pile of plagiarism (hat tip to Ceridwen for the info). I’m not exactly going to re-read the book so I can rewrite my review in that light. But just be aware of this fact as you read the review below.

In my recent review of The Grand Design I went on about my love of science, particularly of physics. I’ll be honest: although biology is really, really cool, I also find it kind of gross. It’s full of squishy stuff, and it was my least favourite of the Holy Trinity of high school science classes (physics, biology, chemistry) for that reason. When I talk biology, I tend to gravitate toward the more abstract areas: genetics, evolutionary biology, and of course, neuroscience—once you get down to the microscopic or molecular levels, the squick factor is considerably reduced. Plus, the brain is just fascinating. It is the undiscovered country of biology: how does consciousness work? What makes us us? The brain is an amazing organ, simultaneously incredibly flexible and resistant yet also so fragile. Even as Jonah Lehrer explores the decision-making process from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, How We Decide also reaffirms my admiration for and awe of the brain.

I learned a great deal from this book. Some of it was about football, because Lehrer opens the first chapter with an analysis of Tom Brady’s performance in the 2002 Super Bowl. Football confuses me at the best of times, but fortunately Lehrer includes plenty of other case studies: airplane disasters, debt counselling, basketball performance, etc. How We Decide is definitely a work of popular science, and it seems to be trying to appeal to the broadest audience possible. However, I approached it as someone interested in learning about neuroscience, and in this respect the book did not let me down.

The focus of How We Decide, especially in the early chapters, is on the distinction between rational decision-making and emotional decision-making. Lehrer challenges the myth that humans are “rational animals”, that our rationality sets us apart and allows us to tame unreliable emotion. His counterexample is the stunning account of people who have experienced damage to their orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). This little area of the prefrontal cortex (itself important to the process of decision-making) has a huge impact on how we decide: it is “responsible for integrating visceral emotions into the decision-making process”, and lacking it means one essentially decides based on rational criteria alone. If the myth of our rationality were true, this would result in the ultimate decision maker, completely unswayed by appeals to emotion. Instead, people with damaged or removed OFCs are indecisive: without emotional cues, they are left to analyze even the smallest decision with relentless attention to the pros and the cons. Emotion might sometimes cloud our judgement, but it can also play a vital role in impelling us.

Later, Lehrer looks at the converse, where emotion misleads one’s decision-making process. He uses high-stakes situations, such as playing Deal or No Deal, to illustrate that emotion can prevent us from choosing the better settlement. When we’re angry or feel that our pride is on the line, we can be rash, leading us to reject otherwise fair offers. Credit cards and other abstractions of money make it easier to spend money, because our emotional brain is fooled into thinking we aren’t spending all that much money at all. (Lehrer attributes the subprime mortgage bubble to this kind of thinking, and points out that this is how credit card companies sucker us in to high lifetime interest rates by using low introductory offers. If you can only take away a single piece of advice from How We Decide, try this: “read only the fine print.”)

In fact, what begins to emerge from these chapters on rationality versus emotion is a theory of automatic versus deliberative decision-making. For situations that are familiar to us, it’s best to keep autopilot on and let our unconscious do the thinking. Our brain is used to the situation, and thinking through the steps is more likely to screw us up than help (this is where Lehrer’s sports examples make a lot of sense). However, as will come to no surprise to most of us, our automatic brains are very bad at dealing with unexpected information. In particular, most people’s automatic brains suck at math. This is where rationality and a more thoughtful decision-making process becomes essential: we have to analyze the new information and figure out how to incorporate it into our model before we can proceed. If we do not, we might end up rejecting a deal that is much more lucrative than what any of the remaining briefcases might offer.

All this might sound rather obvious so far (if so, congratulations on your smartitude), and you might be thinking, but what about the science behind these conclusions? Well, it’s there, but it’s so well integrated into the book that if I start trying to tease it out and present it for our mutual amusement, I’ll probably just end up making it sound dry and boring. Suffice it to say, the second chapter is called “The Predictions of Dopamine”, and Lehrer goes into great detail through the book about the roles various sections of the brain play in decision-making, as well as how we know this—mostly fMRIs, sometimes monkey torture. And of course, it’s worth keeping in mind that none of this is as simple as Lehrer makes it out to be, and that there are probably alternative explanations—e.g., game theory, evolutionary psychology, etc. Lehrer occasionally makes reference to these, but for the most part he sticks with a very functional exploration of our brain. And that’s fine; if I want to read different perspectives, I can always seek out books on those particular topics.

In the spirit of this book’s subject matter, I’ll acknowledge a bias in my decision to like this book. How We Decide lends support to a lot of positions I personally endorse. For example, Lehrer points out that, “people with a genetic mutation that reduces the number of dopamine receptors in the ACC [anterior cingulate cortex] … are significantly more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol”. This belies the contention that addiction is a choice rather than a disease and that addicts simply lack sufficient “willpower” to improve their lives. I’m not saying that we should just drug everyone based on his or her neurological profile—but certainly understanding biological factors that influence our tendencies can help us combat negative tendencies, such as addiction. (Lehrer and I also share a mild disdain for economics and attempts to play the stock market like it’s a predictable phenomenon.)

If there is a theme to How We Decide, it’s that we often suck at making decisions. Not only do we have numerous biases left over from evolutionary adaptation and social inculcation, but the complex interplay between conscious and unconscious decision-making means sometimes we relegate decisions to a part of our brain that isn’t particularly suited to them. Lehrer’s theme, however, is that not all is hopeless: by being aware of these biases, by thinking about how we think, we can mitigate them and improve our ability to make decisions. It turns out that how we decide is influenced a great deal by thinking about how we decide.

And so that’s why I loved this book. It is an excellent scientific look at decision-making through both anecdotal and empirical evidence. (The former is, of course, worthless in a court of science but invaluable in the court of opinion.) Moreover, How We Decide is useful, offering salient advice about how to improve one’s ability to make decisions. I don’t doubt that many people will dislike this book, or at least Lehrer’s style or his derision for economics, but I do highly recommend you give it a try.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
Profile Image for Lisa McKenzie.
277 reviews27 followers
April 16, 2009
How We Decide opens with a killer first sentence: "I was flying a Boeing 737 into Tokyo Narita International Airport when the left engine caught on fire." Right away, I am hooked. As the paragraph progresses, in heart thumping detail, my eyes flick back to the first sentence, to confirm that the author is indeed the pilot on this flight, and not a passenger.
Something strikes me as odd. Before reaching the end of the two paragraph opening page, I find myself flipping to the author photo on the back flap of the book. The author looks like a young kid. If I were a bartender, I'd card him. No, in honor of the subject of the book, let me rephrase that; if I were a bartender, I'd decide to card him. As a reader, I decided to scan his credentials; editor at large for Seed magazine. Author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Graduate of Columbia University. Rhodes Scholar. Lab worker. Editor. Blogger. How did this kid find the time to also get a pilot's license? I read on.
The author is faced with a highly technical life or death decision; should he increase the throttle, or steepen the descent? He decides to gain velocity by faking a nose dive. He writes, "Immediately, I started to go faster. The problem was that I was headed straight for a suburb in Tokyo."
The next page, the gig is up. Turns out, our author is faking more than the nose dive; the anecdote is a sham. Paragraph seven reveals that our industrious author is recalling his experience in a flight simulator. Which leaves me to wonder, should I trust our narrator, or not? He is picking and choosing which details to share, as every author must, and doing it more skillfully than most. How am I to trust which details reveal a truth about decision making, and which details merely support a virtuoso performance? Esthetically, I am charmed. Intellectually, I am wary.
I venture with caution into the first chapter, which questions the Platonic notion that reason must triumph over emotion by declaring that, "without emotion, reason wouldn't exist at all," and supports this assertion with an entertaining, crowd pleasing play by play examples of gut decisions made by NFL quarterbacks. I'm not a football fan, so I still see the puppeteer's strings, but these promptly disappear as I am presented with an anecdote about Antonio Damasio, who is the neurologist version of Brett Favre. Is it geeky to be more taken by neurologists than quarterbacks? Not when you have MS.
I digress.
Demasio encountered a patient who had undergone brain surgery to remove a tumor in his frontal cortex; while this man's considerable intellect had survived intact, his life had subsequently disintegrated. He was fired from his corporate management position; his businesses failed, his marriage failed, he'd been taken in by a scam, he'd gone bankrupt. What struck Damasio, though, was that the fellow was able to describe his ruination without a trace of emotion. His neutral affect intrigued Damasio, who hooked the guy up to a machine which measures the activity of sweat glands in the palms to quantify emotional response. The man was presented with reliably provocative images; violence, porn, you get the picture. No sweat. The guy was impervious to any emotional provocation. While any of us armchair diagnosticians can easily imagine the man's emotional vacancy was the cause of the disintegration of his marriage, Damasio wondered the damage went further than that; perhaps this man's lack of emotions also led to his failures in the other, supposedly more rational aspects of his life. For there was one intriguing deficit the man complained of; since his surgery, he'd been chronically incapable of making even the smallest decision. We think of decision making as being a rational process, yet it was not this man's intellect that was stripped away, but his emotions; without reference to them, he was unable to choose a restaurant, much less a menu item, and this deficit was proving to be utterly debilitating. Damasio wondered if the emotions play a greater part in decision making than we generally give them credit for.
Our author does not leave us with a one note argument for trusting one's emotions in decision making. Instead, he illustrates cases for using one's rational mind as elegantly as he argues the cases for using one's emotional intuition. The key, of course, is to learn how to think about our thinking; to learn to recognize which decisions are best informed by reason, and which by emotion. Many of the experiments presented here were not new to me, but this core thesis promoting metacognition presented a fine uniting principal, and justified the retelling of these stories.
By the way, for those of you who would like to hear a surprisingly different take on the crash of United Airlines 232, it's worth viewing disc 3 of Errol Morris' First Person 2000 series. It tells the story of the same incident, from another point of view, designating a different hero and a different decision making process. This is not to say that Morris' perspective detracts from the perspective offered here; it simply serves as a delicious reminder that the facts can serve different masters. I will close by observing that the author, Jonah Lehrer, is a fellow goodreads member. One of his quotes, interestingly enough, is from Jane Austen:
"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken." — I imagine, then, that he would encourage you to seek other versions of these stories, as well.
Profile Image for Phoenix  Perpetuale.
188 reviews63 followers
January 6, 2022
I have read some comments on this book from people who claim themselves as professionals in some fields.
This book is excellent to read as it gives a good insight and examples of how we think. Some fact might be known to most of us readers, as we might have heard about it or read about it in other sources. However, I find it attractive and very informative and helpful to understand and know how people think.
Profile Image for Dina.
21 reviews7 followers
April 1, 2009
This is a great review of neurobiology, filled with real-life examples. If you ever wondered what informs hunches, why certain things give you the heebie-jeebies "for no reason," or what neurotransmitters are involved in your "6th sense," this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Jeffrey.
Author 9 books3 followers
February 21, 2009

The brain is our defining organ, giving us not only self-awareness, but also the ability to wonder about ourselves, our world, and our own mortality. It is, nevertheless, a mystery why brains work better than others---why some of us make consistently good decisions, and others never seem to learn from their mistakes.



In How We Decide, author Jonah Lehrer explores our current understanding of the human mind. In well-crafted and engaging prose, he draws on examples from professional football players to airline pilots, gambling casinos to modern politics, he demonstrates how different parts of our brain respond to different kinds of stimuli---and how, in a well-trained and adaptable mind, we shift seamlessly between our rational left hemisphere and our emotional and intuitive left side, as we confront the challenges of life.



Tightly tightly written and entertaining, How We Decide is intended more for general audiences than academics, who might find its descriptions and explanations too basic to help in their professional work. For the rest of us, however, it is thought-provoking and helpful, bringing us the benefits of modern research without the burden of academic jargon.

Profile Image for Chris Herdt.
195 reviews30 followers
March 2, 2010
I was at the bookstore today and happened to see this book. I picked it up and read part of a couple chapters.

First of all, why would the author, who can put any picture of himself in the entire world (or no picture at all) on the back of his book choose a picture where he is wearing an unzipped hooded sweatshirt? How am I supposed to take this guy seriously? Speaking of decisions, am I right?

Second, this book seems to be formulaic pop psychology at its worst. Each chapter opens with an overly dramatic anecdote (plane crash, last minutes of Super Bowl, Deal or No Deal, John Wayne Gacy(!), high-stakes poker) to try to lead into a more abstract concept. Unfortunately, it was really heavy on dramatic anecdote, and really light on abstract concept.

It did touch on Kahneman & Tversky's loss aversion concept, an important idea if you are not familiar with it, but honestly, there are 100 other pop psych books that can explain that. Or Wikipedia: make the right decision and save yourself a couple hours and $15.
Profile Image for Judyta Szacillo.
172 reviews24 followers
November 18, 2015
As per Goodreads community reviews, this book ("The Decisive Moment: How The Brain Makes Up Its Mind") is an act of self-plagiarism (from "How We Decide"? or is it the same book?), and it also contains plenty of misquoted data. In this light, I probably should have started my adventure with neuroscience with Kahneman instead. Nevertheless, I have learnt some new things about the workings of the brain, even though it did not feel like a very engaging introduction to me. I found it hard to relate to some of the examples used (like a game of American football or owning eight credit cards). The narrative is quite often needlessly repetitive.
Profile Image for Moonkiszt.
1,923 reviews205 followers
October 2, 2021
This book, and topic, is far away from all my favorite ways to use my brain. That probably explains a lot about me. Analysis is not my gig. (See previous sentence.) I love deciding exercises when it comes to my "favorite things" - I have many collections - and engaging in Big Opinion swaps. Decisions about real life, and hard choices? Two good choices? Two terrible options? Yikes. Not my favorite! Why did I even have this book in my possession? Because it was in the library of one of my beloved deceased relatives (I have the "things" of about 5 households crammed in my own home - many are books). I decided I had to read it before letting it go out into the world.

Throughout the chapters there are numerous examples of actual high risk situations where decisions were made and the outcomes: piloting, sporting, day-to-day choices, poker and deeply moral deliberations. I read this book slowly, chapter by chapter over time, so I could soak it in, and try to wrap my head around - or at least ponder - the points made by the author.

My takeaways come from the end of the book - with the author's caveat that despite all the science that has been discovered, revised and rediscovered, ". . .the cortex remains mostly a mysterious place. . ." (Amen to that!) Here's the author's list, summarized:

A. Simple Problems Require Reason. Instead of impulse, even easy decisions could use intentional consideration
B. Novel Problems Also Require Reason. What from your past will help with a new development?
C. Embrace Uncertainty. Listen to the argument in your head, both sides. All sides.
D. You Know More than You Know. Listen to your emotions - they help with the hard decisions, especially in areas of mistakes experienced.
E. Think about Thinking. It helps us steer clear from stupid errors - practice by studying how you made those errors so you can avoid them next time.
Profile Image for John Wiswell.
Author 44 books371 followers
June 20, 2010
I was excited for How We Decide. Lehrer supposedly took my position, that human beings are both rational and irrational, both are important to good decision making, and they are highly interrelated. Who doesn’t like having their deeply held beliefs about the human condition validated by science? But, though Lehrer did plumb some of the rational/emotional divide, his book became more of a series of scientific anecdotes and sweeping generalizations than a proper synthesis of neuroscience. The anecdotes are sharp, crossing popular topics like sports and the stock market, and in proper media man fashion, Lehrer takes us into the personal details of people who were present. That’s one thing that makes his New Yorker writing so compulsively readable. Unfortunately here, with several hundred pages in which to illuminate the mind, he seems to have missed the scope.

In his opening, Lehrer relays the story of Tom Brady, the rookie quarterback who led his team to a Superbowl upset victory. Lehrer uses Brady as an example of how going on feeling leads to sports success. But a few chapters later, Lehrer uses the 76ers basketball team as an example of how feelings distort how well we’re doing. The 76ers help illustrate contemporary scientific theories on dopamine, but it’s not as though Brady wasn’t affected by the chemical. A few chapters in you realize that like a lot of neuroscience books, this one is just going to represent the same things we already know (sometimes feeling is good, sometimes bad; sometimes logic takes over) in some novel scientific terms. By way of sweeping generalization and chapters contradicting each other, it fails to synthesize neuroscience by avoiding context as to why things sometimes succeed, fail or come into conflict. In that sense, it’s a longer and not quite as exact explanation of the brain as Stephen Johnson’s Mind Wide Open.

The worst sweeping generalization is Lehrer’s conflation of intuition, gut reaction and emotion. You can argue that intuition and gut feelings are emotions – but they are not all of the emotions. Love, hate and fear are not the same as unconscious intuition. So when he discusses the popular game show, Deal or No Deal, and bounces between chastising players for relying too much on emotion, he’s only partially right. Watch the show and you see people caving in to fear about low prize amounts, pleas from family to do one thing or another, and emotional assurances from the host. But when Lehrer implies they lose money on the show for relying on intuition, he’s ignoring what actually happens. Your emotions relating directly to an event, emotions reflecting possible outcomes in the future, and reflective emotions about how things will feel in the future, are not the same.

Lehrer covers so much ground, from game shows to sports to politics, that you’re bound to know one example well enough to catch him oversimplifying. It’s the ironic problem of writing for such a broad audience. Take his analysis of the chaotic stock market. Lehrer claims that if investors see the market climbing and have successful returns, they’ll believe they’ve “solved the market.” Doubtless some people do delude themselves into thinking they’ve got the whole system figured out. But in reality many investors seek out corroboration - if you see precious metal commodities rising and find corroborating stimuli like positive feedback from your broker or a news story of strife where the metals are mined, you have probably figured out one blip in the market. Attempted interpretations like that can still be faulty, but the market responses aren’t purely random, and the individuals that chase them to do not necessarily believe they’ve figured out the entire trading cycle. Lehrer cites a study in which investors partook in a mock-market that was secretly based on the world’s worst crashes – but the study made it impossible for mock-investors to find data, causes or even gossip for why these models were shifting. It does tell us something about how people will interpret unexplained series of numbers, but also tells us something about how some scientists will oversimplify human behavior.

How We Decide has dozens of entertaining anecdotes. It’s no surprise that Lehrer has been on The New Yorker’s staff before; he’s got the knack for germane-sounding tidbits. But like fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, he seems equally prone to overgeneralizing his subjects in the throes of enthusiasm. He makes the pop science entertaining, but I can’t recommend it as a resource.
Profile Image for Ensiform.
1,337 reviews134 followers
June 29, 2013
A look at the existing literature on behavioral science and the conclusions it makes about how we make decisions; specifically, the book argues that we do not simply decide rationally. Rather, we use a blend of emotion, gut feeling, or instinct, as well as a rational weighing of pros and cons, when we decide. Or at least, we should. (The experimental literature is especially fascinating here, as for example in the man who has a brain injury that leaves him affectless and unmoved by emotion, and thus unable to make even the simplest decision, as he gets caught up in an endless loop of weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each possibility.) Snap decisions based on observation and instinct, Lehrer shows in countless examples, are often better (as in successfully crash-landing a plane or escaping a forest fire) than simply listening to one’s desires (as those trapped in credit card debt know too well). On the other hand, as Lehrer shows from examples in the fields of sports and art, over-thinking a mistake or a challenge can lead to perpetual self-doubt and undoing. The crucial point is that deciders must analyze their own decisions and watch carefully how much emotion is biasing their choices; we “know more than we think we know,” and if we apply reason to that knowledge, we can make efficient decisions.

This isn’t a particularly weighty or earth-shaking conclusion, and much of the material here can be found in other popular books on neuroscience. I recognized the hot hands study, the story of the firefighter who built a burnt patch to save himself, and several others. Instead of providing further insight on or alternative interpretations of these studies, Lehrer repeats their key points in such a way that they relate to his larger claims about decision making. I also learned, just before finishing this book, that Lehrer is the disgraced journalist who manufactured Bob Dylan quotes for a subsequent book. So, caveat lector, I suppose. Those problematic aspects aside, I very much enjoyed this book, with its wealth of fascinating anecdotes from brain studies and its practical, sensible applications of the studies to advice on how to decide. Lehrer’s style is breezy and accessible, and he has a gift for finding the empathy, suspense, and drama in every human story.
49 reviews29 followers
April 8, 2015
About 30% of each chapter includes a 'dramatic' story, where the ability of making the right decisions in a matter of seconds (or less) would be a matter of life and death.
Then section develops to explaining what parameters are having the most effect on our decisions. The rest of the book is a collage, which among other sources is mostly taken from Daniel Kahnemann and Antonio Damasio's works, and as they were used out of their original contexts, sometimes imply misleading conclusions.
Thinking: Fast and Slow and Descarte's Error were more comprehensive and clarifying, if not as easy to read as this, and are recommended, if you prefer science to pop-science.
Profile Image for Olivier Goetgeluck.
138 reviews50 followers
July 25, 2014
The process of thinking requires feeling, for feelings are what let us understand all the information that we can't directly comprehend. Reason without emotion is impotent.

Every time you make a mistake or encounter something new, your brain cells are busy changing themselves. Our emotions are deeply empirical.

When Schultz studied those juice-craving monkeys, he discovered that it took only a few experimental trials before the monkey's neurons knew exactly when to expect their rewards. The neurons did this by continually incorporating the new information, turning a negative feeling into a teachable moment. If the juice didn't arrive, then the dopamine cells adjusted their expectations. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on your dopamine neurons.

On why you should fail often:
When the mind is denied the emotional sting of losing, it never figures out how to win.

Even when we think we know nothing, our brains know something. That's what our feelings are trying to tell us.

According to Robertie, the most effective way to get better is to focus on your mistakes. In other words, you need to consciously consider the errors being internalized by your dopamine neurons. After Robertie plays a chess match, or a poker hand, or a backgammon game, he painstakingly reviews what happened.
[...]
He knows that self-criticism is the secret to self-improvement; negative feedback is the best kind.

The physicist Niels Bohr once defined an expert as "a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field."

Instead of praising kids for trying hard, teachers typically praise them for their innate intelligence (being smart). Dweck has shown that this type of encouragement actually backfires, since it leads the students to see mistakes as a sign of stupidity and not as the building blocks of knowledge. The regrettable outcome is that kids never learn how to learn.

Kids praised for their hard work were more interested in the higher-scoring exams. They wanted to understand their mistakes, to learn from their errors, to figure out how to do better.

The experience of failure had been so discouraging for the "smart" kids that they actually regressed.

"I'm looking really hard for my mistakes. I pretty much always want to find 30 mistakes, 30 things that I could have done better. If I can't find 30, then I'm not looking hard enough." - - Herb Stein (TV shows)

A player who thinks he has a hot hand has a distorted sense of his own talent, which leads him to take riskier shots, since he assumes his streak will save him (overconfidence). Of course, the player is also more likely to miss these riskier shots. According Tversky and Gilovich, the best shooters always think they're cold. When their feelings tell them to take the shots because they've got the hot hands, they don't listen.

"People enjoy investing in the market and gambling in a casino for the same reason that they see Snoopy in the clouds. When the brain is exposed to anything random, like a slot machine or the shape of a cloud, it automatically imposes a pattern onto the noise. But that isn't Snoopy, and you haven't found the secret pattern in the stock market."
- Read Montague (neuroscientist)

Since the market is a random walk with an upward slope, the best solution is to pick a low-cost index fund and wait. Patiently. Don't fixacte on what might have been or obsess over someone else's profits. The investor who does nothing to his stock portfolio - who doesn't buy or sell a single stock - outperforms the average "active" investor by nearly 10%.

The world is more random than we can imagine. That's what our emotions can't understand.

On credit cards:
"I always ask people, 'Would you have bought the item if you had to pay cash? If you had to go to an ATM and feel the money in your hands and then hand it over?' Most of the time, they think about it for a minute and they say no."
- Herman Palmer (financial counselor)

When you buy something with cash, the purchase involves an actual loss - your wallet is literally lighter. Credit cards, however, make the transaction abstract, so that you don't really feel the downside of spending money. Brain-imaging experiments suggest that paying with credit cards actually reduces activity in the insula, a brain region associated with negative feelings.

Our emotional brain wants to max out the credit card, order dessert, and smoke a cigarette. When it sees something it wants, it has difficulty waiting to get it.

The emotional brains is routinely duped by these tempting (but financially foolish) advertisements. "I always tell people to read ONLY the fine print. The bigger the print, the less it matters."

Because the emotional parts of the brain reliably undervalue the future - life is short and we want pleasure now - we all end up spending too much money today and delaying saving until tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow).

This human foible is known as the framing effect, and it's a byproduct of loss aversion. The effect helps explain why people are much more likely to buy meat when it's labeled 85% lean instead of 15% fat. And why twice as many patients opt for sugery when told there's 80% chance of their surviving instead of a 20% chande of their dying.

How do we regulate our emotions? The answer is surpisingly simple: 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. (stoicism)

Aristotle argued that one of the critical functions of the rational soul was to make sure that emotions were intelligently applied to the real world. "Anyone can become angry - that is easy," Aristotle wrote. "But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not easy." That requires some thought.

The rational brain can't silence emotions, but it can help figure out which ones should be followed.

There was a strong correlation between the behavior of the four-year-old waiting for a marshmallow and that child's future behavior as a young adult. The children who rang the bell within a minute were much more likely to have behavioral problems later on. They got worse grades and were more likely to do drugs. They struggled in stressful situations and had short tempers. Their SAT scores were, on average, 210 points lower than those of kids who'd waited several minutes before ringing the bell. In fact, the marshmallow test turned out to be a better predictor of SAT results than the IQ tests given to the four-year-olds.

[...] patient children were better at using reason to control their impulses. They were the kids who covered their eyes, or looked in the other direction, or managed to shift their attention to something other than the delicious marshmallow sitting right there.

It turned out that the same cognitive skills that allowed these kids to thwart temptation also allowed them to spend more time on their homework. In both situations, the prefrontal cortex was forced to exercise its cortical authority and inhibit the impulses that got in the way of the goal.

Jung-Beeman found that the mind was carefully preparing itself for the epiphany; every successful insight was preceded by the same sequence of cortical events. He likes to quote Louis Pasteur: "Chance favors the prepared mind."

From the perspective of the brain, new ideas are merely several old thoughts that occur at the exact same time.

Unless you are disciplined about what you choose to think about you won't be able to effectively think through your problem. You'll be so overwhelmed by all those incoming ideas that you'll never be able to figure out which ones are genuine insights.

What causes choking? Although it might seem like an amorphous category of failure, or even a case of excess emotion, choking is actually triggered by a specific mental mistake: THINKING TOO MUCH. The sequence of events typically goes like this: When a person gets nervous about performing, he naturally becomes extra self-conscious. He starts to focus on himself, trying to make sure that he doesn't make any mistakes. He begins scrutinizing actions that are best performed on autopilot. Fleming (opera star) started to think about aspects of singing that she hadn't thought about since she was a beginner, such as where to position her tongue and how to shape her mouth for different pitches. This kind of deliberation can be lethal for a performer. The opera singer forgets how to sing. The pitcher concentrates too much on his motion and loses the control of his fastball. The actor gets anxious about his lines and seizes up onstage. In each of these instances, the natural fluidity of performance is lost. The grace of talent disappears.

[...] novice putters hit better shots when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time the beginner spends thinking about the putt, the more likely he is to sink the ball in the hole. By concentrating on the golf game, by paying attention to the mechanics of the stroke, the novice can avoid beginners' mistakes.
A little experience, however, changes everything. After a golfer has learned how to putt - once he or she has memorized the necessary movements - analyzing the stroke is a waste of time. The brain already knows what to do. [...] when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly WORSE shots.

When you are at a high level, your skills become somewhat automated. You don't need to pay attention to every step in what you're doing.

Experienced golfers should focus on general aspects of their intended movement, what psychologists call a holistic cue word. For instance, instead of contemplating something like the precise position of the wrist or elbow, the player should focus on a descriptive adjective, such as SMOOTH or BALANCED.

While reason is a powerful cognitive tool, it's dangerous to rely exclusively on the deliberations of the prefrontal cortex. When the rational brain hijacks the mind, people tend to make all sorts of decision-making mistakes. They hit bad golf shots and choose wrong answers on standardized tests. They ignore the wisdom of their emotions - the knowledge embedded in their dopamine neurons - and start reaching for things that they can't explain. Instead of going with the option that feels the best, a person starts going with the option that SOUNDS the best, even if it's a very bad idea.

A recent study found that when a person travels more than one hour in each direction, he or she has to make 40% more money in order to be as "satisfied with life" as a person with a short commute.

Consumers typically suffer from a version of the placebo effect. Since they EXPECT cheaper goods to be less effective, they generally ARE less effective, even if the goods are identical to more expensive products. This is why brand-name aspirin works better than generic aspirin and why Coke tastes better than cheaper colas, even if most consumers can't tell the difference in blind taste test.

Only one brain region seemed to respond to the PRICE of the wine rather than the wine itself: the prefrontal cortex. In general, more expensive wines made parts of the prefrontal cortex more excited.

We don't realize how powerful our expectations are. They can really modulate every aspect of our experience. And if our expectations are based on false assumptions - like the assumption that more expensive wine tastes better - they can be very misleading.

In many circumstances, we could make better consumer decisions by knowing LESS about the products we are buying.

The prefrontal cortex isn't good at picking out jams or energy drinks or bottles of wine. Such decisions are like a golf swing: they are best done with the emotional brain, which generates its verdict automatically.

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. The conscious brain can only handle about seven pieces of data at any moment.

Distracting the brain with a challenging memory task made a person much more likely to give in to temptation and choose that calorie-dense dessert. [...] the effort required to memorize seven digits drew cognitive resources away from the part of the brain that normally controls emotional urges. Because working memory and rationality share a common cortical source - the prefrontal cortex - a mind trying to remember lots of information is less able to exert control over its impulses. The substrate of reason is so limited that a few extra digits can become an extreme handicap.

[...] why we get cranky when we're hungry and tired: the brain is less able to suppress the negative emotions sparked by small annoyances. A bad mood is really just a rundown prefrontal cortex.

This is known as the anchoring effect, since a meaningless anchor - in this case, a random number - can have strong impact on subsequent decisions. Consider the price tags in a car dealership. Nobody actually pays the prices listed in bold black ink on the windows. The inflated sticker is merely an anchor that allows the car salesperson to make the real price of the car seem like a better deal. When a person is offered the inevitable discount, the prefrontal cortex is convinced that the car is a bargain.

The fragility of the prefrontal cortex means that we all have to be extremely vigilant about not paying attention to unnecessary information. The anchoring effect demonstrates how a single additional fact can systematically distort the reasoning process. Instead of focusing on the important variable - how much is that cordless keyboard really worth? - we get distracted by some meaningless numbers. And then we spend too much money.

We live in a culture that's awash in information; it's the age of Google, cable news, and free online encyclopedias. We get anxious whenever we get cut off from all this knowledge, as if it's impossible for anyone to make a decision without a search engine. But this abundance comes with some hidden costs. The main problem is that the human brain wasn't designed to deal with such as surfeit of data. As a results, we are constantly exceeding the capacity of our prefrontal cortices, feeding them more facts and figures than they can handle.

"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." - Herbert Simon

When making decisions, people almost always assume that more information is better. [...] But it's important to know the limitations of this approach, which are rooted in the limitations of the brain. The prefrontal cortex can only handle so much information at any one time, so when a person gives it too many facts then asks it to make a decision based on the facts that SEEM important, that person is asking for trouble. He is going to buy the wrong items at Wal-Mart and pick the wrong stocks.

It's amazing how perfectly intelligent people will make foolish decisions if you give them lots of irrelevant stuff to consider.

How we decide should depend on what we are deciding.

While the anatomy of evil remains incomplete, neuroscientists are beginning to identify the specific deficits that define the psychopatic brain. The main problem seems to be a broken amygdala, a brain area responsible for propagating aversive emotions such as fear and anxiety. As a result, psychopats never feel bad when they make other people feel bad. Aggression doesn't make them nervous. Terror isn't terrifying.

"The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason."
- G.K Chesterton

"Moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate ... Moral arguments are much the same: two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other."
- Jonathan Haidt

"So convenient a thing is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

One of the ways neuroscientists learn about the brain is by studying what happens when something goes wrong with it. For example, scientists learned about the importance of our moral emotions by studying psychopats.

The broken mind helps us understand how the normal mind works.

Whenever you see a human face, you use a highly specialized brain region called the fusiform face area that is solely devoted to helping you recognize other people. In contrast, when you look at a chair, the brain relies on the inferior temporal gyrus, an area activated by any sort of complex visual scene. However, in the study, people with autism never turned on the fusiform face area. They looked at human faces with the part of the brain that normally recognizes objects. A person was just another thing. A face generated no more emotion than a chair.

Once people become socially isolated, they stop stimulating the feelings of other people. Their moral intuitions are never tuned on. As a result, the inner Machiavelli takes over, and the sense of sympathy is squashed by selfhishness. The UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has found that in many social situations, people with power act just like patients with damage to the emotional brain. "The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially appropriate behavior. You become very impulsive and insensitive, which is a bad situation."

Accroing to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don't activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our minds can't comprehend suffering on such as massive scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. And why we donate thousands of dollars to help a single African war orphan featured on the cover of a magazine but ignore widespread genocides in Rwanda and Darfur. As Mother Theresa put it, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

Researchers have found that when a store puts a promotional sticker next to the price tag - something like "Bargain buy!" or "Hot deal!" - but doesn't actually reduce the price, sales of that item still dramatically increase. These retail tactics lull the brian into buying more things, since the insula is pacified. We go broke convinced that we are saving money.

Voters think that they're thinking, but what they are really doing is inventing facts or ignoring facts so that they can rationalize decisions they've already made. Once you identify with a political party, the world is edited to fit with your ideology.

We all silence the cognitive dissonance through self-imposed ignorance.

The people on television who are most certain are almost always certainly going to be wrong.

"The dominant danger [for pundits] remains hubris, the vice of closed-mindedness, of dismissing dissonant possibilities too quickly." -
Philip Tetlock
Profile Image for Cheryl.
910 reviews93 followers
November 11, 2013
“Plato, for example, couldn’t help but imagine a utopia in which reason determined everything. Such a mythical society- a republic of pure reason- has been dreamed of by philosophers ever since. But this classical theory is founded upon a crucial mistake. For too long, people have disparaged the emotional brain, blaming our feelings for all of our mistakes. The truth is far more interesting. What we discover when we look at the brain is that the horses and the charioteer depend upon each other. If it weren’t for our emotions, reason wouldn’t exist at all.”

Lehrer goes on to detail the intricate way we make decisions, and it is fascinating, a wonderful, elegant, surprising read. It is a hot button topic, and when brought up with friends, everyone has their own examples of making a decision, with which tools they used, emotion or reason, and the consequences, and they believed passionately in the outcome as proof as to whether it was a good or bad decision. I tend to subscribe to the more Zen like view that no decision is inherently good or bad, but what had to happen in the way it did, so that even bad decisions lead you where you are supposed to be. As Mason Jennings sings, “…where would I be right now if all my dreams had come true… I would have never seen your face, this world would be a different place.” Not to spoil the gist of it all, but Lehrer ends with a wonderful conclusion; that thinking about how you make decisions is more important whether you go with reason or with emotion. “If you’re going to take only one idea away from this book, take this one: Whenever you make a decision, be aware of the kind of decision you are making and the kind of thought process it requires. It doesn’t matter if you’re choosing between wide receivers or political candidates. You might be playing poker or assessing the results of a television focus group. The best way to make sure you are using your brain properly is to study your brain at work, to listen to the argument inside your head.”

Lehrer seriously leaves no stone unturned in his vast perusal of the literature of neurology and cognitive psychology, and he makes learning so deliciously fun, I wish he was a teacher, but am not sure if I want him to have been my high school or college teacher. Didja know, “a typical major league pitch takes about .35 seconds to travel from the hand of the pitcher to home base. (This is the average interval between human heartbeats.)Unfortunately for the batter, it takes about .25 seconds for his muscles to initiate a swing, leaving his brain a paltry one-tenth of a second to make up its mind on whether or not to do so. But even this estimate is too generous. It takes a few milliseconds for the visual information to travel from the retina to the visual cortex, so the batter really has fewer than five milliseconds to decide if he should swing. But people can’t think this quickly, even under perfect conditions, it takes the brain about twenty milliseconds to respond to a sensory stimulus.”

So I have never been at the receiving end of a major league fastball, so I imagine I had more time to decide when I played softball, or when I hit a tennis ball, but I get that it is all happening in seconds, and it is not the rational part of my brain working, it is instinct, and it is feeling that guides me. Lehrer spends a bit of time on Tom Brady’s decision making in the pocket, with high pressure and again milliseconds to decide where to throw, when and to whom. “There is no robot that can hit a baseball or throw a football or ride a bicycle…This is why when evolution was building a brain, it didn’t bother to replace all of those emotional processes with new operations under explicit, conscious control. The result is that the uniquely human areas of the mind depend on the primitive mind underneath. The process of thinking requires feeling, for feelings are what let us understand all the information that we can’t directly comprehend. Reason without emotion is impotent.” There is an interesting example of a British submarine commander who was watching radar and something was just slightly off, slightly different than a normal blip on radar that he had been watching and he had a minute or less to decide whether he should give the command to fire on the blip or not. When his decision, which was the right one, was studied by other military personnel, they could discern no disruption of the pattern, and chalked it all up to luck. The commander himself could not describe what felt different or wrong to him either, but when a psychologist took a broader view, he was able to find a 3 second discrepancy, enough to give the commander chills, enough to make him decide to shoot it down, and save an entire American battleship and not kill 2 American pilots. That kind of instinct is elegant and beautiful, and accurate over and over.

Oh, if we could have learned this in school: “The brain is designed to amplify the shock of mistaken predictions. Whenever it experiences something unexpected- like a radar blip that doesn’t fit the usual pattern- the cortex immediately takes notice. Nothing focuses the mind like surprise. This fast cellular process begins in a tiny area in the center of the brain that is dense with dopamine neurons. Neuroscientists have known for several years that his region, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is involved in the detection of errors. The signal emanates from the ACC, so many neuroscientists refer to this area as the “oh, shit!” circuit.”

When there is a genetic mutation present that causes decreased dopamine receptors in the ACC, researchers have found fascinating correlations with drug and alcohol dependency, for example. The signals that alert the brain that something bad has happened, a negative reinforce, can’t allow the brain to learn from it, or alter its self destructive path. The signals travel along ‘spindle neurons’ that carry emotions through the whole brain. Only humans and great apes have spindle neurons. Lehrer writes, “we can now begin to understand the surprising wisdom of our emotions. The activity of dopamine neurons demonstrates that feelings are simply reflections of hard wired animal instincts. Human emotions are rooted in the predictions of highly flexible brain cells, which are constantly adjusting thief connections to reflect reality. Every time you make a mistake or encounter something new, your brain cells are busy changing themselves. Our emotions are deeply empirical…Every time you experience a feeling of joy or disappoint men, fear or happiness, your neurons are busy rewiring themselves, constructing a theory of what sensory cues preceded the emotions. The lesson is then committed to memory, so the next time you make a decision, your brain cells are ready. ”

I recently discovered a brain training memory game based on the Stroop task, which is a psychological experience of flashing colored words of different colors, and the task is to ignore the word and focus on the color and pick the color over the word. So the word blue in green needs to be read as green, and it is hard to tell your brain that. It instinctively wants to pick blue since that is the word you are looking at. When looked at through MRI, the prefrontal cortex, home of reason, is the most active during this exercise. I am good at this exercise, which is interesting since I think I rely on my emotional brain more than my rational brain when it comes to decisions. So exercising my prefrontal cortex will come in handy. It’s fun too! Another fascinating example involved an airplane flight with a completely unprecedented and never before though of system failure that required the pilot to invent, invent!, a new way of flying midflight. The prefrontal cortex is also capable of coming up with unique and creative solutions or flashes of insight, which feel more instinctual or emotion based, but is an elegant synthesis of the two.

And perhaps my favorite idea in the whole book: “moral emotions existed long before Moses. They are writ in the primate brain. Religion simply allows us to codify these intuitions, to translate the ethics of evolution into a straightforward legal system.” Research and imaging of the brain as they confront ethical dilemmas such as a train speeding down the track reveals intricate reasoning and feeling; the easy choice is to flick a switch to save five men versus one, but the brain struggles if the choice is to push an overweight man onto the track to save the same five men. Our psychological evolution, separate from the bleak Darwinian view of ‘amorality and selfish genes,’ is richer and more integral to the wiring of our brain that we ever knew. Beautiful.
Profile Image for Dy-an.
305 reviews8 followers
April 28, 2012
What I liked: The reassurance that air travel is very safe. Big decisions should be emotional decisions. The author is wearing a hoodie in his picture (he better like drinking beer).
What I didn't like: The use of monkeys in experiments. Super sad!
Who I'd suggest it to: Anyone who likes pretending they are a psychologist. This will add more ammunition to the psychological gun.
Profile Image for Dana.
88 reviews34 followers
June 6, 2013
Review Unavailable :p
It's simply because, I cannot think of an appropriate review for this book; no matter how much I wrote, it deserves much Much MUCH more <3
Jonah Lehrer, YOU ROCK!!!
Profile Image for Kyle.
26 reviews3 followers
January 2, 2012
I'm going to start this review by saying I did not read the entire book. I read about 2 chapters and had to turn the book off (I was listening on my commute.)

Approaching the book with sincere optimism at reading a solid non-fictional psychology based book about choices, I felt I was baited and switched.

While this book proclaimed scientific non-fiction, and painted itself as objective, I simply could not get over the fact that the author was very clearly pushing a big-bang, darwin-inspired, godless agenda. I felt that there was a sense of scientific self-righteousness about the author that I would not be able to deal with throughout an entire book.

No qualms were had in denying years of traditional psychology by applealing to arguments of neuroscience (a prepubescent science even in comparision to the often rejected non-science of psychology), and in doing so all arguments were made with a "survival of the fittest makes it obvious" tone. The text was laced with biased, unproven-scientific rhetoric that I felt detracted from the arguments that could have been quite interesting if portrayed in a more approchable way.

In the end, I don't recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn neuroscience or psychology objectively... including myself.
Profile Image for Bookmarks Magazine.
2,042 reviews713 followers
April 15, 2009

With Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell has cornered the market on popular studies of human behavior. But Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide holds its own with Gladwell, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and the host of science writers increasingly focused on the complexities of the human brain. "There isn't any spectacular revelation, unique viewpoint or knockout final summation," noted the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post felt that Lehrer "does little to integrate science's contradictory findings." Lehrer nonetheless illuminates the many processes involved in even the simplest decisions. By letting the experts do much of the talking and by drawing conclusions from his voluminous research and knowledge of the field, Lehrer presents a readable account of what we know about how we decide -- and acknowledges the vast universe of what we don't.

This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

Profile Image for charlie.
157 reviews1 follower
August 23, 2009
I have read three books that circle around the science of decision-making, especially under pressure. The most famous is BLINK; but I also grabbed on a whim a book called THE UNTHINKABLE about how people have survived extreme circumstances (such as plane crashes and acts of terrorism)... finally, on a recommendation, I read HOW WE DECIDE. They all are informed in one way or another by the new discoveries of neuroscience about how the brain work, and use the same case study techniques of FREAKONOMICS - in other words, are pretty easy reads.

Let me make this very very clear - the ONLY book worth reading - the only one which is cohesive; that is engaging; that you can actually learn something from is this one - HOW WE DECIDE. I especially say that in light of the KoolAid like hype about everything Malcolm Gladwell writes and especially BLINK, with which I was greatly disappointed. I was immensely stimulated with HOW WE DECIDE and highly recommend it as a light introduction to a Big Subject that I am sure we will be hearing a lot more about in the future.
Profile Image for Taylor.
47 reviews
July 9, 2011
I think I have to stop reading (listening to) these kinds of books (i.e. books in which an author uses psychological/neurological/behavioral economics research to explain how humans do something -- decide, pay attention, seek happiness, etc.). This one follows a similar pattern as the rest of them, discussing a lot of the same classic and newer experiments, then trying to relate the results to how we make decisions.

While that part has gotten repetitive for me, the author does come to some feasible, applicable conclusions about how we decide and how we can decide better (hint: "rational" decision-making is definitely not always best...though neither is emotional/intuitive). I liked how it was organized, too: engaging stories about real people (quarterbacks, elite poker players, firefighters, serial killers) making surprising/money-making/life-saving/(life-ending) decisions introduced each section.

So -- 3 stars if you've obsessively read books like this for the last year or two, like I have; 4 if it's a new genre.
Profile Image for Graham Herrli.
96 reviews66 followers
June 27, 2018
Jonah Lehrer's books have been pulled from stores due to plagiarism and fake interviews. I recommend Malcolm Gladwell's books as an alternative.


For the most part, this book is a brilliantly simple explanation of complex mental processes, but in some cases Lehrer oversimplifies a bit.

The book explains when to make decisions using your rational versus emotional mind. For new or simple problems, rely upon reason; for complex or habituated problems, rely upon emotion (with the caveat that relying too heavily upon emotion in such situations will prevent you from changing your opinion when presented with contradictory evidence).

To clarify these points and make them memorable, Lehrer uses several engaging mini-biographies interwoven with the evidence of various popular psychological and neurological studies.
Profile Image for Milan.
264 reviews2 followers
May 20, 2018
It’s my first look inside the brain and I liked what I saw. 'How we Decide' looks at the new science of decision-making and how it can help us in making better choices in our daily lives. Jonah Lehrer shows us the inner workings of the brain. We learn about the different parts of the brain which are involved in the decision-making process, chiefly among them the prefrontal cortex. He explains beautifully about loss aversion, creativity and working memory. I really liked the description of new ideas: “From the perspective of the brain, new ideas are merely several old thoughts that occur at the exact same time.”

This book has really encouraged me to explore the human brain further.

Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,534 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.