Trevor's Reviews > How We Decide

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
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Aug 13, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: behavioural-economics, psychology

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.
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08/12/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-23 of 23) (23 new)

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message 1: by Ellen (new)

Ellen I'm still not certain I'll read this book, but I sure liked your review.

Trevor Thanks Ellen - you could get away with reading the coda. I enjoyed writing this one.

message 3: by Eric_W (last edited Dec 23, 2009 06:43PM) (new) - added it

Eric_W Hey Trevor. Another terrific review although I must say that when I buy a car I want cheap and long warranty. So I hope that's using the rational rather than the emotional. A friend of mine has been after me to read this book and you've clinched it.

I've noticed the inerrant inaccuracy of political pundits before, but it carries over into any field of true believers. Take Paul Ehrlich for example. A review of his predictions find them to be virtually 100% wrong, yet he would claim them to be rationally inspired and he continues to attract a following. It just seems he refuses to accept the possibility he might be wrong.

Trevor Yes, Ehrlich can be very amusing. Like one of those end of the world types, it must be very annoying when the world doesn't actually end when you said it was supposed to. I once heard him complain that economists are always wrong in their predictions and thought that perhaps he ought not to throw stones. But they invariably do throw stones anyway, these people assured of certain certainties.

I think you will like it - I thought of you about half way through when it started hinting that it might be a bit like the wisdom of crowds. I find I get very excited now when books start reminding me of that book.

Helen (Helena/Nell) Or we could just read the last paragraph of your review. Seems to sum it up remarkably well to me: yes, yes and YES to that.

But maybe I should read the whole book to open myself to the possibility that this assumption might be wrong . ...

Trevor The irony of course being that in the review I've said that if I was writing the book I would have started where he ended and in the review I've in fact ended where he ended... Any wonder I've gone on to read a book called Why We Make Mistakes How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average

Helen (Helena/Nell) Are book titles ALL getting longer?

Trevor I'm not sure what the point of all of the subtitles is - but it does look like a bit of a competition. We had a poet once here in Australia called Raymond J. Bartholomew who would recite for minutes on end and then say, "That was the title" - which always amused me.

Helen (Helena/Nell) Then there is the one-word poem genre. There is no limit to the number of words in the title though. . .

message 10: by Jim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jim Two related titles with interesting decision making ties

Super Crunchers Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart

This book has an interesting section on how Air Safety has greatly improved while preventable deaths in hospital have remained constant during the same period. (improving decisions/reducing mistakes are discussed)

Everyday Survival Why Smart People Do Stupid Things

Alot about decision making in life or death situations


Trevor Hi Jim -

David Giltinan (a person on whose opinion I think very highly) only gave Super Crunchers two stars and Grumpus (someone else who often has interesting things to say about books) said he had higher hopes for it... I'll have a look though it when I get a chance. All the same, Deep Survival sounds fascinating. Thanks for the tips.

message 13: by Jim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jim The 100,000 lives campaign description was what I found most interesting in the Super Cruncher book.


The SC book had a lot of self promotion much like Taleb's books which some may not like. However there are alot of specific examples which I found of interest.

Trevor I'll try to get to SC soon. I like the slogan of the 100K lives campaign - some is not a number, soon is not a time.

message 15: by Carlo (new)

Carlo Trevor wrote: "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."

Such a pleasure to have you on Goodreads, Trevor. Thank you.

Trevor Thanks Carlo - although it is easier to say things like that than to live up to them.

message 17: by Clif (new)

Clif Hostetler The publisher has found problems with this book, has withdrawn it from sale, and is offering refunds to those who purchased it:

Trevor Yuck - I really did enjoy this book. There is a lesson in this, but it is hard not to feel for him. Awful.

message 19: by Clif (new)

Clif Hostetler Apparently the problem is plagiarism, not factual content.

Trevor Yes, I know, awful. I really struggle to understand why people would bother. I don't know that people get fewer points for saying, "and as Fred says in blah, blah, blah..." It is how you pull ideas together that mades them interesting, not that you were the first to ever have them.

Mahesh Devani trevor you have explained things in much simple ways than this book author.
thanks for posting your review.

Simon Robs "The Feeling of What Happens" [Antonio Damasio] a good adjunct to this discussion.

Trevor I will see if I can find it. Thanks

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