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40 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2009
"If you're going to take one idea away from this book, take this one: Whenever you make a decision, be aware of the kind of decision you are making and the kind of thought process it requires."

If you think about a book on human behaviours, unexpected findings, and researches, you could probably think of a lot of them. If you add neuroscience to the mix, you would probably think of a few. But if you think of that kind of book with a practical and solid guideline for you to change how you live your life, I doubt you could find that many. And "How We Decide" by Jonah Lehrer falls in that category.

The book is about `decisions' and how they are made by rationality and emotions from you brain (there are lots of parts within the frontal cortex but I'm not sure which). This is another typical book of this genre but let me tell you why should you `decide' to get this book.


The Quarterback in the Pocket
The first story starts with the 2002 Super Bowl and how Tom Brady made the decision that led the team to victory. Lehrer moved onto stories of Plato and the very interesting one is the man who had a brain damage and lost emotions and eventually, he just could not `decide'. This chapter focuses on `emotion' and how it is crucial to decision making.

The Predictions of Dopamine
The chapter begins with the story of Lieutenant Commander Michael Riley who commanded a British destroyer and decided to do something vital during the Persian Gulf War (I'm not going to spoil the story). The author also wrote about Bill Robertie, a chess master, a widely respected poker expert, and a backgammon champion. By the way, this is not my field but Dopamine is the brain region (or cell, or neurons, or whatever) that links our emotion to expectations.

Fooled by a Feeling
Emotions cannot do everything. The author wrote about Ann Klinestiver, a Parkinson teacher who became a slot machine addict (and lost literally almost everything in life) AFTER her Parkinson's disease `treatment'. The chapter moves onto basketball player's hot hands, stock investment, and a game show `Deal or No Deal'. The epic part of this chapter is about credit card (I am personally moved by this part and it sent shiver down my spine). The core of this chapter that wild feelings or emotions can bring us down.

The Uses of Reason
The story of a firefighter who survive the thick wall of raging fire starts the chapter perfectly because it is about how reasons are crucial at certain times. There is also another heartfelt story about a young girl, Mary, who were a brilliant and bright girl with bright future but one day she became different and ruined her life drinking, sleeping around and became angry a lot. She was eventually infected by HIV because of her brain tumor! Another great story in this chapter is how Captain Al Haynes of the United Airlines Flight 232 could maneuver the plane without basically everything working except the thrust levers.

Choking on Thought
The chapter begins with the opera singer Renee Fleming and how her career went downhill. Likewise, Van de Velde, a golf pro, could not recover from the career slump because of their `thoughts'. There are numerous researches in this chapter along with the MRI machine that failed to treat back pain. The point of the chapter is that we can think too much because our brain is not designed to calculate, take into account, and make a decision of 10 choices with 20 factors each.

The Moral Mind
This is also one of my favourite chapters starting with John Wayne Gacy, a psychopath who murdered thirty-three boys. The crucial aspect is how he thought and decided to commit those `evil' (put your baddest word here) crimes without a wink. There are many researches including the one on war. There is also a very eye-opening story about `autism'.

The Brain Is An Argument
Within a decision, there are numerous parts of your brain working at the same time and you are likely to decide based on which part is winning be it choosing a political party candidate, shopping, or pundits. There is a story about decision-making failure during the 1973 war in the Middle East.

The Poker Hand
This chapter is mainly about Michael Binger, one of the world's best poker players and how he applied different tactics in each different round. The chapter ends with the simple guidelines (with explanations, of course)

It's the conclusion with another great story

I'll compare "How We Decide" to an ideal business book in my personal opinion a book that is easy to understand, distinct, practical, reliable, insightful, and provides great reading experience.

Ease of Understanding: 9/10: From the briefing above, you will see that there are so many stories and they make it easy to understand the content and the way Jonah Lehrer wrote is a breath of fresh air. Each chapter has its core concept and the explanations are clear. The only confusion comes from the neuroscience. If you are not familiar with the brain parts, you might struggle a bit but that's minor.

Distinction: 6/10: What can I say? I have read some researches in the book from other books and this book is not the breakthrough of a major finding on neuroscience. However, this book is different in the aspect that it tells you why you did what you did and it tells you how should you do, which brings us to the next part.

Practicality: 9/10: When I first picked up "How We Decide", I did not have much hope in practicality but this book exceeds every expectation of mine. I might be biased but since I read the chapter on credit card, I really stopped using my credit card (except for online purchases) because the book told me what I thought and it was like a lightning struck on your head. The stories and researches will make you think of yourself and the world around you differently.

Credibility: 8/10: There is no need to not believe the book because of the tons of highly advanced scientific researches regarding the activity in your brain. Every explanation and analysis is written in plain language but scientific proofs are always there.

Insightful: 7/10: When I think of this book, I can think of so many stories (this is probably the book which has stories that I can recall most). I spent hours telling my friends about the stories in this book. There are lots of stories and lots of researches. Yes, it's pretty insightful.

Reading Experience: 10/10: I love the book. The book changes the way I spend and that alone is much great than the $25 price tag of the book. I changed the way I think of an unfortunate autistic person I know personally because in the past, I think of feeling and emotion for granted but this book says `don't, you don't have a clue'. Moreover, the book has (I said it for the millionth time) great stories that you will remember.

Overall: 8.2/10: I love the book. Bias? Possibly. "If you're going to take one idea away from this book, take this one: Whenever you make a decision, be aware of the kind of decision you are making and the kind of thought process it requires." And trust me that if you start from that idea, you'll get countless of invaluable ideas, for life.
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23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
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 in which he shares 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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24 of 30 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 4, 2009
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The brain has been the hot topic of a number of books lately from Buyology to Daniel Pink's work and others. These books, while helpful, do not engage or inform the reader the same way as Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide. This book is a unique combination of brain science, popular culture and clear explanation that was a pleasure to read. Here is why:

How We Decide starts from the premise that the traditional separation of reason from emotion is incomplete and in fact we are decisive because we connect both sides of our brain. Lehrer illustrates this idea with stories of people who have had to make quick decisions, build strong decision making skills or face tough choices. Those stories are then backed up by a review of the neuroscience that covers the structure of the brain to the functioning of dopamine, etc. Presented together the reader gets an understanding of what has happened and what is happening in the brain.

Lehrer then builds on the emotions + reason = decision equation to talk about failure modes where emotions run amok and reason is the only way the person can think. These stories follow the same pattern as the opening discussion and provide greater insight into the way the brain works.

Overall this book is a rare combination of science that is interesting and entertaining. I would almost go so far as to say that it would be a great Book Club recommendation for those clubs who want to discuss more than fiction.

So a recommended read that opens the mind to how it thinks, while engaging your attention. The best book on the brain I have read in a long time -- at least I think so.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2011
Having read nearly all of the behavioral economics books out there, I would venture to rank this among the top, if not as the best of them. Not only is the content as engaging as it is in other behavioral economics texts, but Lehrer strings it all together in a very cohesive package that is as practical as any other book in the field. With that being said, this book shares a number of flaws with the best behavioral economics books and so cannot be considered the last word in this fascinating branch of study.

The things that make this book stand out over the others have mostly to do with the author's approach. First, he includes a sizable segment on brain physiology that gives a little more backbone to the argument. While all behavioral economics books talk about the psychological aspects, Lehrer dives right into neurons and dopamine transactions. Of course, his treatment is light, so the reader cannot expect real scientific breakthroughs here, but it is an admirable effort.

Second, it is a testament to the author's education that he references many past scholars that go unrecognized in similar books. Nods to Plato, the Founding Fathers, Kant, Dostoevsky, William James, and others betray Lehrer's standing as a Rhodes scholar. Unfortunately for this reader, the pop-sci nature of this book prevents Lehrer from examining these references in any depth, but, again, the allusions are admirable.

Finally, Lehrer's writing is perhaps the best of the behavioral economics writers. Using the typical New Journalism style, Lehrer is able to convey his stories and weave in his thesis with much more precision and clarity than scientist-first writers with competing books.

Despite its pluses, this book is not devoid of the same mistakes that all behavioral economics books make. The typical flaws found in these books have to do with the concept of rationality. The premise is that human beings are irrational. The studies go on to show all kinds of strange behavior that humans engage in--anchoring effect, loss aversion, and so on. The problem, of course, is that no one ever thinks to define rationality, and so claims of human irrationality are unfounded. This is true even when the claims are backed by loads of scientific evidence.

`How We Decide' is guilty of the same stretches in logic. To take one example, in the chapter on the Uses of Reason, Lehrer claims that "Teens make bad decisions because they are literally less rational" with regard to long-term social norms such as staying in school. But then he goes on to explain how West Virginia instituted a program that encouraged teens to stay in school by threatening to take away their driver's licenses. To Lehrer, this is a way to get around the irrationality of teens. But, if you look closely, it's obvious that the teens are making decisions that are just as rational as any other decision--they're just based on different incentives. Teens have different goals and information than adults. That doesn't make them less rational, just different.

Lehrer attempts to add these typical behavioral economics themes up into a general theory of human thought. It is similar to the recently released Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman--humans have two modes of thought, one that is slow and rational and one that is fast and emotional. Unlike Kahneman, Lehrer makes the argument that the fast, emotional thinking is not only beneficial, but also necessary for healthy human beings. While the concept is compelling, it does seem to be a little too ambitious for a pop-sci book, and so the case doesn't seem to be developed enough here. It seems especially lacking because the term "emotional" is almost as loaded as "rational," and Lehrer does not take the time to define it either.

Ultimately, this book deserves to be read, even by those who have already consumed the rest of the behavioral economics library. Just don't anticipate a grand unified theory of human decision-making, and you'll be thoroughly rewarded.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Lehrer is a superb science writer and this is an excellent non-technical introduction to the psychology of decision making. This is one of my favorite topics, so there was very little here that was new to me or particularly original other than Lehrer's smooth way of explaining the ideas and clever use of diverse examples.

I particularly like this book as a corrective to Gladwell's popular book "Blink" which introduces many of the same ideas but in a more biased way. The thing that makes this book so much better is that it doesn't use a cute spin to try to be original and provocative and socially relevant, he sticks to the science and as a result gets it closer to the truth I think.

Lehrer doesn't at all downplay emotions in decision making, "rapid cognition," and so on, in fact he demonstrates their power. He just makes the very important point that we should rely on our non-conscious decision making feelings in some situations more than others. The more experience we have accumulated in an area, the more we should go with our gut. The less experience we have in an area, the more we should use formal techniques to help structure and guide the decision process.

This isn't a magic bullet and it is probably fairly obvious to most people who have studied the subject and thought about it, so it won't catch on like the notion of the "miraculous power of the unconscious" periodically does, but it is very wise and well scientifically founded advice.

If you read lots of decision science book like I do, you don't need this one also, but if you are looking for your first book on decision science, this could well be one of your best choices.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2009
Lehrer's latest book is a wonderful account of what happens at the neural level when we decide, and when we must decide quickly. His writing style is clear, precise, erudite, yet, it is unpretentious and highly accessible. His outlook on life, and on the frontal cortex, is clearly full of compassion and wonder. He conveys the excitement of the most recent research in neuroscience and contextualizes it in relation to the erroneous Cartesian and Freudian assumptions about the brain and cognition. But the chapters in this book go beyond weighing the role of instinct versus analysis in our decision-making. The stories told in this book are about assessing one's decision making, about the epiphanies of our right hemisphere, about the limitations of our neural processing power, and about morality. How do we become better listeners of our brain and overcome uncertainty?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2010
This book is about how human mind make decisions and how we can make better decisions. Following is the high level summary.

Sometimes we need to think through the options we have and sometimes we need to listen to our emotions. The secret is to know when to use these different styles of thought. Reason and feelings have important strengths and weakness. Different situations require different strategies. How we decide should depend on what we are deciding.

Our reasoning is like the charioteer and our emotions are the horses. People have disparaged the emotional brain, blaming our feelings for our mistakes. Emotions are crucial part of decision making. A brain that can't feel can't make up its mind.

Since Plato we have been assured that a perfectly rational world would be perfect world. This is not true. The reality of the brain is that, sometimes, rationality can lead us astray. Choking is one of the example of the havoc that can be caused by too much thought. It's an illustration of rationality gone awry.

One of the problem with feeling is that even when they are accurate, they can still be hard to articulate. Instead of going with the option that feels the best, a person starts going with the option that sounds the best, even if it's a bad idea. When we overthink at the wrong moment, we cut ourselves from the wisdom of our emotions.

The worst decisions happen when the emotions are silent or overwhelming. In order to make the right decisions, the mind needs emotional input. The emotional input needs to exists in dialogue with the rational analysis.

People in good mood are significantly better at solving hard problems that require insight than people who are cranky. This is because the brain areas associate with the executive control are preoccupied with managing the emotional life and it's hard for the executive control to focus on the problem.

The reason our emotions are intelligent is that they've managed to turn mistakes into educational events. We are constantly benefitting from our experience, even though we are not conciosulsy aware of the benefits. Becoming an expert takes time and practice. Once we've developed expertise with requisite mistakes,it's important to trust our emotions when making decisions in that domain. It's feelings that capture the wisdom of experience.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2010
The problem with some scientist-writers, is that they sometimes are incapable of interesting and therefore educating the lay public in their field. Their efforts are informed and valiant, but out of reach for the unscientific reader. What Lehrer is able to do in "How We Decide" is summarize the complex field of neuroscience in a very readable and scientific way without losing people without a PhD. On the other side of the coin, many "non-scientists" who try to write about science sometimes get their facts or conclusions wrong because of their lack of expertise in the field. I thought Lehrer did a fantastic job of avoiding both these mistakes by keeping it simple, accurate, and interesting - a rare combination in the exciting and new field of neuroscience.

His main idea is that we should make decisions using the right tool - sometimes based on reason (for fairly simple decisions) or sometimes using our emotions (for more complex ideas). This sounds a bit counterintuitive until you have allowed Lehrer to introduce you to some of the studies conducted in the field. Lehrer, in discussing reason vs. emotion, also didn't paint a black and white view of decision making (reason is better or emotion is better). He spends a lot of time discussing the errors of feeling certain and the limitation of both reason and emotional decision making (while using interesting examples from poker players to airline cockpits to NFL quarterbacks) so that the reader can better understand what is happening inside their brain and thereby avoid errors of cognition. In summary - a exciting and relevant read about how our brains work with regard to our own opinion generation and decision making.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2009
First things first - I am no brain surgeon, nor am I well-read in the subject of neuro-science. But this book has certainly piqued my interest. Not only is the author a master story teller, he makes even the complicated science appear as simple as his stories. He relates the scientific experiments on a level that is easy to grasp and appreciate.

Mr. Lehrer made me want to learn to play poker and read more about the Yom Kippur War. He made me feel as though I were in the same war room and cockpit of his focal subjects. From sports to politics, Mr. Lehrer knows how to keep his audience tuned in. This is a must in a book with as much specific scientific information as this one.

Science can be a complicated and technical subject - he has made it as interesting and as simple as Bill Nye the Science Guy (only for adults). But more than just taking a deep, complicated subject and making it simple, he made it relevant. This is not just a book about brain chemicals that has no bearing on life. This book is about life and the decisions we make in it. Beyond its simplicity and excitement, the book is practical. In fact, Mr. Lehrer even takes the time to summarize his research into a concluding section on how to apply these things in our everyday decisions.

For those who are well-read in this area, I do not know how much this book will help you. But if you are someone who loves to learn new things and to get a glimpse into how your mind works, this book is a must-have. It will help you better understand yourself, your children, and those around you when it comes time to make decisions.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2011
If you like the Jim Collins books (good to great, etc.) and Culture Code than you will love this book. I'm not a scientist but I love trying to figure out what makes people tick, and this book does exactly that in an interesting way, similar to how freakenomics made you rethink about why people behave the way they do. This author deserves to be put in the same class as these authors because this work is just as good. Again, this is not a text book on psychology, it just helps explain the outliers of human behavior in a way than anyone can understand.
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