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on February 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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on 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. Then he gets into the dopamine system that makes us feel pleasure, but at the same time tells us when something is wrong (the blip being an enemy missile rather than one of us good guys in a fighter jet) by stimulating long slender spindle cells that go all over the brain so we get the jolt simultaneously. Interestingly enough these 'emotion' sensors are only found in higher primates, and humans have 40 times more than our closest monkey friends, pretty conclusive proof that our emotions are a highly flexible system for real time predictions with a mistake recognition loop for improving our expectations for the life we move into.

Intelligent intuition is the result of deliberate practice. That is the conclusion of one of the best chess, backgammon and poker players in the world, Bill Robertie. If you want to improve, review your mistakes. Lehrer even tells you how to stop spending so much on so many credit cards, based on brain science of the small 'insula' in the brain that recognizes negative feelings - it's far harder to hand across cash than plastic. Got suckered in the 'sub-prime' mortgage debacle? There's a brain region for that, too. And Herman Palmer, a New York debt counselor (part of the every day use of this book) says, ' only the fine print," on credit card come-ons.

On mulling the facts, in a crisis, Chapter 4: The Uses of Reason has a stellar section in it about two pilots trying to save their DC-10 (no not because of the faulty baggage door that put the company out of business) from crashing, pages 120 - 132. This tells you how the brain works through a problem when terrified, and coming to a counterintuitive conclusion that has never existed before when 500 lives, most importantly your own, is at stake.

Chapter 5: Choking on Thought, is about how when we think over something we know well, that we inhibit our conscious attention and we choke. This is intended to further develop the intuition, subconscious part of decision making. For my tastes, this was a tad repetitive, and perhaps too many scientific studies to make the same point several times. But, interesting stories, nonetheless, for example, it has been conclusively shown that MRI examinations for lower back pain have resulted in more than 50% more 'invasive' incorrect outcomes from doctors because our conscious centre in the right prefrontal area can only handle, get this, seven different factors before its ability to make decisions goes down the tube and we make worse decisions. And you thought the brain worked like a computer. Wrong.

Chapter 6 is about how we make ethical discriminations. Kant, Descartes and lawyers won't be happy to know it doesn't take a lot of rational thought to make moral decisions. It turns out that we are hardwired to do so. We get the feeling, and then the rational mind makes up reasons to explain the feeling. This is because mammals need the warm feeling of mothers and others from the first moment to turn out okay. Our minds innately sympathize with others, empathize, then make altruistic decisions based on, actually, not wanting to see others suffer. We have active emotional reactions from our amygdyla, mirror cells that key in on others expressions so we experience the feeling, then our fusiform area recognizes particular people, and unlike psychopaths who do not feel, an amygdyla problem, or autists who cannot recognize the facial features that mean certain emotions and we want innately are wired to theorize that others are like us. These areas make us imbue others with emotion. It's not about rational thought at all; that comes later in the justification stage. Interestingly, if we are deprived of others our abilities to empathize and take actions to help others go way down, so think about various types of child abuse that change people when they most need those various centres to be turned on, nurtured and grown. Fascinating chapter. Oh, and all you parents who have been deprived of your child or lost a child feel intense pain because of simple hormones that also regulate water level in the body - vasopressin and oxytocin. Such a loss wipes most people out for the rest of their lives.

The collected wisdom of How We Decide comes on pages 244 - 250, but the book is much more fascinating than the summary. And The Coda puts neatly the mesh between the experience (emotion) and reasoning (conscious thought) components of our thoughts. Both have their specialties and both are required all day long every day.

Lehrer takes my vote as the science writer who has best thought through the science - their papers often written with tentative conclusions, in gibberish text and with the need to pass peer judgment, demonstrate repeatable experiments and with an overladen Latin weight - and translated it into incisive, sparkling, accessible, understandable and compelling reading for the human being who is interested in investigating how things work in their heads. And it passes the short attention spam test: the book ends in less than 250 pages. As previously mentioned, I am working on a book: The Brains of Poets (, and would always like more science and more art. This book will appeal to a broader audience.
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on 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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on September 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. While much of the book gives an explanation to things that we already knew, there were a few lightbulb moments, causing us to mimic Adam Sandler's reaction in The Waterboy: "And by the way, Mama, alligators are ornery...because of their medulla oblongata!"

We were thrilled to discover that Lehrer is an enamoured of foxes as we are. He writes at length on Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox and Philip Tetlock's study of political pundits (Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?), where hedgehogs and foxes are used to describe two different styles of thinking. Lehrer provides a summary : "While the hedgehog reassures himself with certainty, the fox relies on the solvent of doubt. The fox accepts ambiguity and takes an ad hoc approach when coming up with explanations. The fox gathers data from a wide variety of sources and listens to a diversity of brain areas. The upshot is that the fox makes better predictions and decisions." Be still our hearts!

For those of us in business, the information will not necessarily change the way we make decisions but instead give us some interesting insight into why some decisions are easier to make than others. Lehrer concludes the book urging us to, if nothing else, start to think more about the process of thinking: "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." This book helps us do precisely that.
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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 on emotions, or rigorous logic, or hold a long-term running debate in your head, or how to best mix emotions and logic when appropriate.

Since I was young, any discussion about how to make better decisions quickly turned into a debate between those who liked to follow the rules of logic and those who liked to wait until they get a good feeling about a choice. The reason that debate continued is that both sides are right, and wrong, part of the time. The good decision maker will know when to access which method . . . or to combine them . . . for the best results.

I found How We Decide to be the best introductory book I've read for helping anyone to improve decision practices, depending on the circumstances. For example:

1. When we have little time to decide, need to act, and are quite experienced, relying on our feelings will guide us to a typically high quality answer that our subconscious mind has already figured out. Try to logic that situation out, and we lose the benefit of the feeling and don't around to applying the logic properly.

2. When there are lots of variables and we have lots of time, but the decision isn't important, we can waste tremendous amounts of time comparing things until we eventually make a worse decision than if we went with our feeling-led intuition earlier on. We are particularly at risk in situations where our minds can be misled (we immediately like expensive items better than less expensive ones . . . even when they are objectively inferior, have a hard time resisting a bargain, and don't feel enough pain when we can pay with plastic).

3. When there's lots of uncertainty . . . even with keen logic applied, it's good to draw on both logic and those feelings. The combination will narrow down the choices into a more informed, higher quality choice.

4. Avoid situations where your brain will keep trying to find a pattern, making you feel good, even as your pocket is picked (such as when you play slot machines).

5. When there are only four variables to compare and it's an important decision, do all the analysis you want . . . if you have enough time.

6. Compare things first without knowing their prices (such as by tasting wine without knowing the brand). You'll make better choices and save a lot of money.

7. Get more people involved where incomplete perceptions and bias can lead to bad decisions (such as the former practice of letting airline pilots have too much authority in the cockpit during an emergency).

Jonah Lehrer also describes the latest research that explains why those conclusions are true. If you read a lot in the field, the research won't be new. If you don't read much on the subject, you'll find these studies to be interesting confirmation of the stories and suggested decision rules.

Nice job!

From what the author says in the acknowledgments, the editor did an excellent job on this book. Congratulations for suggesting many of these great stories!
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on August 20, 2009
This is an excellent, authoritative yet entertaining text on a complex and perhaps controversial topic. The author is to be commended for his masterful treatment of the complexities and to his impact on the non-professional reader.
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on April 22, 2010
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. I was particularly intrigued to discover that, over time, I'd fallen into precisely the sort of shopping behavior that studies have shown are most likely to lead to long-term satisfaction. I ponder all the factors, and then, without making a decision, browse elsewhere in the store for a few minutes. After that pause to let my subconscious mull over the decision, I almost alway reach a decision I like.

The book's chief failing is that the author doesn't pull everything together into a "How we should decide" summary. For me, all the interesting bits and pieces never seemed to come together. Sometimes he cites studies showing that following reason is the best option. Other times the research suggested that it was best to go with gut instinct. I realize that life is complex and research often contradictory, but a bit more summation would have been helpful.

--Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien: A Chronology and Commentary for The Lord of the Rings
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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 decisions are made. In recent years, I have read a variety of books that have helped me to increase my knowledge in these specific areas. They include William Calvin's How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then And Now, Gerald Edelman's Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On The Matter Of The Mind, Guy Claxton's Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, Howard Gardner's Five Minds for the Future, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and most recently, Torkel Klingberg's The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory. I am grateful to these and other volumes for increasing my understanding of the decision-making process while realizing that is still so much more that I need to know. Hence my interest in Jonah Lehrer's book, How We Decide.

In the Introduction after sharing an experience aboard a simulated flight landing at Tokyo Narita International Airport, Lehrer observes: "In the end, the difference between landing my plane in one piece and my dying in a fiery crash came down to a single decision made in the panicked moments after the engine fire...This book is about how we make decisions. It's about airline pilots, NFL quarterbacks, television directors, poker players, professional investors, and serial killers...[Ever since the ancient Greeks, assumptions about decision making have revolved around a single theme: humans are ration.] There's only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: It's not how the brain works...We can look inside the brain and see how humans think: the black box has been broken open. It turns out we weren't designed to be rational creatures...Whenever someone makes a decision, the brain is awash in feeling, driven by its inexplicable passions. Even when a person tries to be reasonable and restrained, these emotional impulses secretly influence judgment...Knowing how the mind [i.e. `a powerful biological machine'] works is useful knowledge, since it shows us how to get the most out of the machine. But the brain doesn't exist in a vacuum; all decisions are made in the context of the real world."

Then in the Coda, Lehrer re-visits the approach into the Tokyo airport that, we now realize, serves as the central metaphor in his book. "When the onboard computers and pilots properly interact, it's an ideal model for decision-making. The rational brain (the pilot) and the emotional brain (the cockpit computers) exist in perfect equilibrium, each system focusing on those areas in which it has a comparative advantage. The reason planes are so safe, areas in which it has a competitive advantage. The reason planes are so safe, even though both the pilot and the autopilot are fallible, is that both systems are constantly working to correct each other. Mistakes are fixed before they spiral out of control." The safe landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River on January 15th offers a more recent example of what Lehrer calls "perfect equilibrium" between Captain Chesley ("Sully") Sullenberger and the computers aboard the Airbus A320.

There are many valuable insights within Lehrer's narrative. Here are several that caught my eye, albeit quoted out of context.

"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." (Page 26)

"Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process." (Page 54)

"The ability to supervise itself, to exercise authority over its own decision-making process, is one of the most mysterious talents of the human brain. Such a mental maneuver is known as executive control, since thoughts are directed from the tip down, like a CEO issuing orders." (Page 116)

"As it happens, some of our most important decisions are about how to treat other people. The human being is a social animal, endowed with a brain that shapes social behavior. By understanding how the brain makes these decisions, we can gain insight into one of the most unique aspects of human nature: morality." (Page 166) Lehrer devotes all of Chapter 6, The Mortal Mind, to this important "aspect." For

"At its core, moral decision-making is about sympathy. We abhor violence because we know violence hurts. We treat others fairly because we know what it feels like to be treated unfairly. We reject suffering because we can imagine what it's like to suffer. Our minds naturally bind us together, so we can't help but follow the advice of Luke: `And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Page 180)

Actually, I highlighted dozens of other passages but this review is already longer than I originally intended so I will quote no others. Because I think so highly of this book, I wanted to allow Lehrer sufficient opportunity to share at least a few of his thoughts with those who read this review. Credit him with a brilliant achievement: Enabling his readers to make better decisions by helping them to "see" themselves as they really are by carefully examining that is inside the "black box of the human brain." Only by doing so can we "honestly assess our flaws and talents, our strengths and shortcomings. For the first time [Lehrer claims], such a vision is possible. We finally have tools that can piece the mystery of the mind, revealing the intricate machinery that shapes our behavior. Now we need to put this knowledge."

I am unqualified to comment on Jonah Lehrer's claim that what he offers enables the aforementioned "vision" for the first time. However, he has certainly increased both my awareness and my understanding of what may be in my own "black box."
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on November 1, 2010
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.
You can really feel the complexity behind each tough or decisions and the explanations are really good and informative.
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on May 1, 2009
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. When is instinct and experience better than a long, rational analysis? The book offers insights and examples that may not be surprising. e.g. the possible effect of Parkinsons medications on gambling addiction. e.g. how surgical teams and airline crews are working together rather than relying on the judgement of one team leader.
I plan to reread it because I know I missed some of the applications.
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