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How We Decide [Hardcover]

Jonah Lehrer
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb. 9 2009
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?

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“Cash or credit? Punt or go for first down? Deal or no deal? Life is filled with puzzling choices. Reporting from the frontiers of neuroscience and armed with riveting case studies of how pilots, quarterbacks, and others act under fire, Jonah Lehrer presents a dazzlingly authoritative and accessible account of how we make decisions, what’s happening in our heads as we do so, and how we might all become better ‘deciders.’ Luckily, this one’s a no-brainer: Read this book.”—Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

"Over the past two decades, research in neuroscience and behavioral economics has revolutionized our understanding of human decision making. Jonah Lehrer brings it all together in this insightful and enjoyable book, giving readers the information they need to make the smartest decisions.”—Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes’ Error and Looking for Spinoza

“Jonah Lehrer ingeniously weaves neuroscience, sports, war, psychology, and politics into a fascinating tale of human decision making. In the process, he makes us much wiser.”—Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational

“Should we go with instinct or analysis? The answer, Lehrer explains, in this smart and delightfully readable book, is that it depends on the situation. Knowing which method works best in which case is not just useful but fascinating. Lehrer proves once again that he’s a master storyteller and one of the best guides to the practical lessons from new neuroscience.”—Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired and author of The Long Tail

“As Lehrer describes in fluid prose, the brain’s reasoning centers are easily fooled, often making judgments based on nonrational factors like presentation (a sales pitch or packaging)...Lehrer is a delight to read, and this is a fascinating book (some of which appeared recently, in a slightly different form, in the New Yorker) that will help everyone better understand themselves and their decision making.” —Publisher's Weekly, starred review

About the Author

Jonah Lehrer is a Contributing Editor at Wired and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. He writes the Head Case column for The Wall Street Journal and regularly appears on WNYC’s Radiolab. His writing has also appeared in Nature, The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American and Outside. He’s the author of two previous books, Proust Was A Neuroscientist and How We Decide. He graduated from Columbia University and attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything "Blink" Should Have Been Feb. 27 2009
I often hear a lot of comments criticizing this book's similarity to Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink". Yes, the subject matter is the same and there are 3 or 4 real-world examples that they both had in common.

But "Blink" left me rather disappointed. It was a book that was about these real-world examples and not much else. It was a fun read, like Gladwell's other books, but it amounted to little more than trivia.

Lehrer's "How We Decide" not only delves into the neuroscience behind the subject matter, but most crucially it leaves its readers with conclusions that they can apply to their own lives - something that was sorely missing in Blink. The structure of the book is solid and deliberate, with the final chapters of the book putting all the pieces together.

Was it as fun to read as "Blink"? I imagine many people would say that it's not. But the insight Lehrer provides is vastly more valuable and resolves many of the frustrations I had with Gladwell's book. Anybody with a background in science, social science, or even math will probably feel the same way. Where Gladwell made reckless assumptions and created many shady links between cause and effect, Lehrer tends to keep the examples more relevant and the logic much more airtight.

If you read books solely for entertainment, you probably don't need to read this if you've already read "Blink." But if you have even the slightest interest in expanding your knowledge and applying this information to improve your decision-making, "How We Decide" is an infinitely better resource.

I mean it wholeheartedly when I say that this book is everything that Blink should have been.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How We Really Decide May 15 2009
How We Decide - Jonah Lehrer, 2009

After being blown away by his previous book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist, on the relationship between brain science and art, I snapped up Lehrer's next one. Its purpose is to demonstrate the relationship between brain science and the way we make decisions in our everyday world.

It points out early that the old dichotomy that we all know and our western tradition has believed for the past three millennia is in fact false. That tradition is that the brain is divided between reason and emotion and that from Plato on forward we have been told we have to pay attention to reason because emotion leads us of the rails and has to be cajoled and bullied back into place by reason.

Wrongo. The brain is a prediction machine and conscious and unconscious factors lead people to made decisions, sometimes favouring the speed and experience of intuition and on other occasions mulling over the facts.

In this context, Lehrer uses compelling real life situations to make his points. How Tom Brady passed into the 'future' to win the Superbowl; how the radar tech felt a returning jet blip was wrong and ordered it downed, less than a half mile from a battle ship he was not on - it was a missile; how the mind is averse to loss and that we invest money in the stock market for bad reasons; that superstar basketball players do not get on streaks of success; and so on.

Early on, Lehrer points out that a brain injury patient who has the connection between the subconscious and conscious centre (behind the right eyebrow) severed cannot make decisions because without emotional preferences consciousness has no way of determining which action to take.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing April 29 2009
After immensely enjoying Lehrer's first book, "Proust Was a Neuroscientist", I was excited and interested to read anything else he wrote. But when I finally got my hands on "How We Decide", I found it to be a huge letdown. Lehrer abandoned his articulate, in-depth yet easily digestible style from "Proust Was a Neuroscientist" in favour of a poppy, neo-science-journalist outlook in which he spends more time describing the physical appearances of various players in anecdotes than the neuroscience he is trying to illustrate. The book reads like one of the many ripoffs of Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink", in both style and content. While its greater attention to neuroscientific information gives it an edge, the shallowness of its discussions and poverty of its knowledge are still unforgivable, given that it was written by an actual scientist. I have already read "Blink", and had no desire to read it again. Please, Mr. Lehrer -- even your readers who are laymen want in-depth, scientific reading, not fluffed-up nonsense about "logic vs feelings".
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful Book for Business Sept. 28 2010
There are lots of book written about decision-making, but what is unique about Jonah Lehrer's terrific book, How We Decide, is that it is written from the point of view of neuroscience and, thus, provides some interesting and counter-intuitive revelations. From a business perspective, it arms readers with the knowledge of how the brain is operating when faced with making different types of decisions and thus allows one to streamline the decision-making process.

Lehrer points out that for a long time, humans have made a distinction between the rational brain and the more "primitive" emotion-driven brain (for example, in the book Switch, which we reviewed earlier, the authors build on this idea, using Jonathan Haidt's metaphor of the Rider and the Elephant to represent reason and emotion.) Lehrer refers to the work of Plato, Descartes and Freud to show how decision-making has long been thought to be the job of the rational brain. Many authors have challenged this notion -- Malcolm Gladwell in Blink springs to mind -- and Lehrer provides the scientific reasons behind the theory.

Lehrer shows how the rational brain is easily overloaded and is best used to make decisions when the problem is simple, there are few data points, and the outcome is not terribly important. In all other circumstances the emotional brain is a safer bet. However, for anyone tempted to disband current decision-making processes and just go with the gut, he shows why sometimes the "blink" response can let us down. He outlines common decision-making pitfalls (why people tend to make silly decisions in order to avoid a perceived loss, for example) and shows why experience is such an important component of making the optimal choice.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Brain 101
We spend our whole life trying to figure out how our mind works. This book is an open door to understand the mechanic of it. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Cognacazur
4.0 out of 5 stars How We Decide
This book is well written and easy to understand. Complicated science of the activity of the brain and what affects our brain activity is presented in lay terminology and... Read more
Published on Feb. 5 2012 by Betty
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read
Haven't finished reading it yet(3/4) but the situation used as examples for how the work do that it does are very interesting to say the least. Read more
Published on Nov. 1 2010 by Vincent Lachapelle
4.0 out of 5 stars Good but flawed
As others have noted, this book is quite good at explaining not only "how we decide," but more important, how we decide wisely or foolishly. Read more
Published on April 22 2010 by Michael W. Perry
5.0 out of 5 stars How We Decide
This is an excellent, authoritative yet entertaining text on a complex and perhaps controversial topic. Read more
Published on Aug. 20 2009 by D. E. Huggins
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb insights into decision-making
This is very well written and referenced. This is a book about how parts of the brain affect decision-making. Different types of decisions may require different methods. Read more
Published on May 1 2009 by Karen M. Cooper
5.0 out of 5 stars A Highly Accessible Description of Helpful Decision Practices for...
Don't just Blink! Instead, read a series of well-chosen, beautifully told stories of successful and unsuccessful decision practices, along with some rules of thumb for when to rely... Read more
Published on April 21 2009 by Donald Mitchell
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant analysis of "the power of the emotional mind"
With regard to neuroscience, I am the among non-scholars who have a keen interest in what the brain and mind are and how they function, and am especially interested in how... Read more
Published on March 17 2009 by Robert Morris
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