How we decide

Title: How we decide
Author: Jonah Lehrer
Price: £13.00
Publisher: Mariner

This was a book recommended to me by Ted Garratt. Ted works as a business coach and also in sport – check him out

‘How we decide’ is a fascinating introduction to the complex processes we undertake when making decisions. Problems of urgency, problems with potential catastrophic consequences, problems of complexity or a combination of all three are included in this book. Each chapter begins with a story from real life, each of which not only illustrates the main thrust of the particular section of the book but also engages the reader in the topic. We are treated to pilots working frantically to avoid imminent airplane disasters, athletes making split –second decisions on the field, firefighters trying to save lives, poker players competing to win millions of dollars and a whole lot more. But if you are thinking that the book might only be relevant to ‘superhumans’ doing extraordinary things, hold on. In every chapter, Lehrer moves from the extraordinary to the mundane. His point is that the processes that go on in ‘big’ decisions are also the same for the ‘small’ stuff like deciding which flavour of jam is best or choosing your next car. (In fact, Lehrer’s own inspiration for writing the book in the first place was his frustration at his inability to select a brand of cereal, while shopping one day!)

The book is very heavily weighted to brain activity, as a source of information on decision-making and Lehrer shows that different decision-making strategies do not all use the same areas of the brain. However, he also provides many examples from experimental psychology, biology and sociology, to show how these different strategies have effects in the real-world. Much of the book is devoted to the individual (ie what goes on in the brain as decisions are made) but there are some interesting chapters on the social side of decision-making, when interacting with others. Some of this is done from the study of the ‘abnormal’ – what happens when the brain is damaged in some way and there is a particularly interesting section on psychopathic behaviour and also of autism. He also covers social decision-making in applied settings such as playing cards.

He takes the Platonic view of the relationship between emotion and rationality (that they are in tension with each other) and turns it on its head. He argues that there is a role for feelings as well as cognition in good decision-making, but he also shows that there are limits to emotionally-based and rationally-based thought. In fact, the wrong process applied to the wrong situation leads to poor outcomes. (He also gives examples of how are brains can be fooled into using the wrong type of thought process to make a decision, for example, he explains how ‘special offers’ in supermarkets lead us to think emotionally, when a bit more rationality might be helpful.) What the book leads us to examine is a complex interplay between emotion, cognition and experience, with experience being built up through deliberate practise. (He talks about the value of reviewing and analysing mistakes, for example). His argument is that as highly evolved beings we have developed these different ways of thinking for a purpose; we should not, therefore, be trying to promote one type of thinking while denying another.

So, if each type of thinking has a benefit, yet also has its own limitations, that can sometimes get us into trouble, then the question is how do you know what type of thinking to apply to the specific situation that you are facing? Lehrer’s final chapter gives some practical hints and tips on how to choose the best thing to do when faced with a variety of situations. A great book.

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