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How We Decide [Kindle Edition]

Jonah Lehrer
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (269 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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?


Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Product Description
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?



A Q&A with Jonah Lehrer, Author of How We Decide

Q: Why did you want to write a book about decision-making?

A: It all began with Cheerios. I'm an incredibly indecisive person. There I was, aimlessly wandering the cereal aisle of the supermarket, trying to choose between the apple-cinnamon and honey-nut varieties. It was an embarrassing waste of time and yet it happened to me all the time. Eventually, I decided that enough was enough: I needed to understand what was happening inside my brain as I contemplated my breakfast options. I soon realized, of course, that this new science of decision making had implications far grander than Cheerios.

Q: What are some of those implications?

A: Life is ultimately just a series of decisions, from the mundane (what should I eat for breakfast?) to the profound (what should I do with my life?). Until recently, though, we had no idea how our brain actually made these decisions. As a result, we relied on untested assumptions, such as the assumption that people were rational creatures. (This assumption goes all the way back to Plato and the ancient Greeks.) But now, for the first time in human history, we can look inside our mind and see how we actually think. It turns out that we weren't designed to be rational or logical or even particularly deliberate. Instead, our mind holds a messy network of different areas, many of which are involved with the production of emotion. Whenever we make a decision, the brain is awash in feeling, driven by its inexplicable passions. Even when we try to be reasonable and restrained, these emotional impulses secretly influence our judgment. Of course, by understanding how the human mind makes decisions--and by learning about the decision-making mistakes that we're all vulnerable to--we can learn to make better decisions.

Q: Can neuroscience really teach us how to make better decisions?

A: My answer is a qualified yes. Despite the claims of many self-help books, there is no secret recipe for decision-making, no single strategy that can work in every situation. The real world is just too complex. The thought process that excels in the supermarket won't pass muster in the Oval Office. Therefore natural selection endowed us with a brain that is enthusiastically pluralist. Sometimes we need to reason through our options and carefully analyze the possibilities. And sometimes we need to listen to our emotions and gut instinct. The secret, of course, is knowing when to use different styles of thought--when to trust feelings and when to exercise reason. In my book, I devoted a chapter to looking at the world through the prism of the game of poker and found that, in poker as in life, two broad categories of decisions exist: math problems and mysteries. The first step to making the right decision, then, is accurately diagnosing the problem and figuring out which brain system to rely on. Should we trust our intuition or calculate the probabilities? We always need to be thinking about how we think.

Q: Are you a good poker player?

A: When I was in Vegas, hanging out with some of best poker players in the world, I convinced myself that I'd absorbed the tricks of the trade, that I could use their advice to win some money. So I went to a low-stakes table at the Rio, put $300 on the line, and waited for the chips to accumulate. Instead, I lost all my money in less than an hour. It was an expensive but valuable lesson: there's a big difference between understanding how experts think and being able to think like an expert.

Q: Why write this book now?

A: Neuroscience can seem abstract, a science preoccupied with questions about the cellular details of perception and the memory of fruit flies. In recent years, however, the field has been invaded by some practical thinkers. These scientists want to use the nifty experimental tools of modern neuroscience to explore some of the mysteries of everyday life. How should we choose a cereal? What areas of the brain are triggered in the shopping mall? Why do smart people accumulate credit card debt and take out subprime mortgages? How can you use the brain to explain financial bubbles? For the first time, these incredibly relevant questions have rigorously scientific answers. It all goes back to that classical Greek aphorism: Know thyself. I'd argue that the discoveries of modern neuroscience allow us to know ourselves (and our decisions!) in an entirely new way.

Q: How We Decide draws from the latest research in neuroscience yet also analyzes some crucial moments in the lives of a variety of "deciders," from the football star Tom Brady to a soap opera director. Why did you take this approach?

A: Herbert Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, famously compared our mind to a pair of scissors. One blade, he said, represented the brain. The other blade was the specific environment in which our brain was operating. If you want to understand the function of scissors, Simon said, then you have to look at both blades simultaneously. What I wanted to do in How We Decide was venture out of the lab and into the real world so that I could see the scissors at work. I discuss some ingenious experiments in this book, but let's face it: the science lab is a startlingly artificial place. And so, wherever possible, I tried to explore these scientific theories in the context of everyday life. Instead of just writing about hyperbolic discounting and the feebleness of the prefrontal cortex, I spent time with a debt counselor in the Bronx. When I became interested in the anatomy of insight (where do our good ideas come from?) I interviewed a pilot whose epiphany in the cockpit saved hundreds of lives. That's when you really begin to appreciate the power of this new science--when you can use its ideas to explain all sorts of important phenomena, such as the risky behavior of teenagers, the amorality of psychopaths, and the tendency of some athletes to choke under pressure.

Q: What do you do in the cereal aisle now?

A: I was about halfway through writing the book when I got some great advice from a scientist. I was telling him about my Cheerios dilemma when he abruptly interrupted me: "The secret to happiness," he said,"is not wasting time on irrelevant decisions." Of course, this sage advice didn't help me figure out what kind of cereal I actually wanted to eat for breakfast. So I did the only logical thing: I bought my three favorite Cheerios varieties and combined them all in my cereal bowl. Problem solved.

(Photo © Nina Subin, 2008)




From Publishers Weekly

“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

Product Details

  • File Size: 534 KB
  • Print Length: 321 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0618620117
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 Reprint edition (January 14, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003WMAAMG
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #151,305 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
582 of 622 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Perhaps my expectations of one of my favorite authors/editors in Seed magazine and from his earlier book Proust Was a Neuroscientistwas too high...nevertheless, this book is a disappointment. Not that there is anything structurally or factually incorrect - it just doesn't add any value to a reader that is familiar with this field. The examples and studies mentioned in the book, for the most part, have been repeated many times in several books of this genre. Instead of providing additional insights or alternative interpretations, or any follow-ups to the experiments and studies, Lehrer, for the most part repeats the key points from these studies and attempts to make some points in the context of decision making. Despite best efforts, the book merely ends up reinforcing known and well-popularized concepts (even in popular literature) such as recency bias, cognitive dissonance, loss aversion, etc. If you have read books like Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness you will be hard pressed to find enough value in this book to invest in this. Other books such as ... Read more ›
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52 of 52 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars What you should know before you buy this book March 4, 2013
Format:Paperback
Quoted from NPR: [...]

"Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has decided that disgraced journalist and author Jonah Lehrer's second book, How We Decide, will be taken off shelves at bookstores after the publisher's internal investigation uncovered "significant problems," The Daily Beast reports. Lehrer, who publicly apologized (in exchange for a substantial fee) last month for fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in his third book Imagine, resigned from The New Yorker in July. Imagine was pulled from shelves last year. The publisher didn't go into specifics about the problems with How We Decide, but Daily Beast's Michael Moynihan had previously flagged some "problematic passages.""

Sigh...I was looking forward to this read. Is originality dead?
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130 of 142 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but lightweight January 25, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This book describes the neuroscience behind decision making, and in particular the various parts of the brain that are involved in different parts of problem analysis. It is filled with interesting examples from real world situations such as airplane near-disasters, poker playing, and Parkinson's patients, and uses these examples to illustrate various parts of our brain machinery.

The book is an easy read, interesting, and informative. It is, however, a lightweight read. Do not expect great depth into any of the studies -- it is more like a survey course or cliff notes in many respects. This makes it approachable for an audience without any science background, but it also left me wanting a lot more depth. I also found the concluding chapter to be forced... it didn't really have much to offer.

I am glad to have read the book, but I didn't walk away feeling amazed.
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing read from a much lauded author July 29, 2009
Format:Hardcover
I read this book because I am teaching a course in consumer behavior this fall and was wondering if this book might be worth making required or optional reading. Neuroscience and neuromarketing are gaining a lot of attention in the marketing field and I thought this could be a good introduction. Unfortunately, I was disapointed by this book. I agree with previous reviews that a lot of the content seems similar to books like Blink and Buyology. I love colloquial examples but I couldn't help feeling like I had heard these exact same stories and examples before. Granted, this is less of an issue if you've never read a book on neuroscience, neuromarketing or decision making, but I would have expected the author to source more examples that are less common.

I think I would have had less of an issue with the similar content if the book was told in a way that was compelling and interesting. However, this was just not the case for me. I found that the storytelling paled in comparison to books like Buyology and Blink. It's completely subjective but there was just nothing pushing me along to keep me engaged in the book. I generally have a high tolerance for dry writing but I found myself consistently putting this down and having to encourage myself to pick it back up. Granted, reading examples I had heard before probably contributed to this, but the writing didn't help in my opinion either. I think the one strength of this book is that it is very well researched and it is clear that Lehrer really knows what he is talking about.

Overall I think this book was just too similar to others I had read on similar topics and not written as compellingly as those books either.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Free Will?
This is a fascinating read. The anecdotes and psychological study reviews are mind grabbing. Despite what may have happened to Jonah Lehrer's writing career, the value of this... Read more
Published 19 days ago by Eric Leberg
1.0 out of 5 stars Very lightweight...
Didn't like it at all. Based on the description on the back, I was expecting the book to be more analytical. Read more
Published 1 month ago by gottalove
5.0 out of 5 stars Superbly presented
This book is a must read. No matter what you do, you have to make decisions and this book really teaches us to be aware of the complex processes of decision making.
Published 2 months ago by R. Grounds
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book on how we think and the importance role of emotion in...
I enjoy learning how the brain functions, and this book to me clears up many questions. Why are our initial instincts often correct, and when should we listen to them. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Michael L. Workman
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read
but not super engaging. Lot of really great info in this book and some neat anecdotes, but I often found myself slogging though it.
Published 3 months ago by J. Ault
5.0 out of 5 stars Decide
How we decide talks about the decision making process of the brain, it's a fantastic book and I've given it a gift many times.
Published 4 months ago by BVos
5.0 out of 5 stars How we decide
A great book that is easy to read and give insight into the decision making process. Very, very interesting and informative!
Published 4 months ago by reader
2.0 out of 5 stars Simplistic neuroscience
I'm biased because I actually am a neuroscientist, but this book throws around brain centers and pathways just enough to fool you that there actually is some science in what he's... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Robert Scaer
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read! Shame he made it all up.
Seriously, I don't know much about the plagiarism/fabrication scandal, but this book is a captivating tale about something that might be based loosely on science. Read more
Published 5 months ago by jbridges
3.0 out of 5 stars Could have been......
There could be great insights in this book. Unfortunately, we will never know becasue it is not possible to say what is factual and what has been "made up" or misstated.
Published 5 months ago by An HG Wells purist
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More About the Author

Jonah Lehrer is a Contributing Editor at Wired and the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He graduated from Columbia University and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He's written for The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. He's also a Contributing Editor at Scientific American Mind and National Public Radio's Radio Lab.

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