How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer

by Derwood Hunsdale-Talbot on August 18, 2009

How We Decide

By Jonah Lehrer

Reviewed by D.B. Lee


Thomas Jefferson hoped that the “American experiment would prove that men can be governed by reason and reason alone.” Obviously, Jefferson’s hope is far from realized and Lehrer shows us that it probably never will be.

Calling on the latest discoveries in neuroscience, he shows that the process of decision-making (and indeed, the source of emotion) is largely dependent on fluctuations of chemicals within the brain. These chemicals and their distribution, developed through evolution to enhance our survival through that long period of our history dominated by hunting and gathering, can work against us in our modern world.

To illustrate how our brains can undermine us, Leher gives us stories, such as The Myth of the Hot Hand, (91 percent of all NBA fans believe in players having shooting streaks; statistics clearly show them to be non-existent), the Gambler’s Fallacy (each time you flip a coin the odds of it coming up heads are always 50/50, even if you’ve just flipped heads five–or twenty-five times–in a row. Most people simply can’t accept this.) He shows that the randomness of Wall Street clearly favors the person who is least active. (“The investor who does nothing to his portfolio–who doesn’t buy or sell a single stock–outperforms the average “active” investor by nearly ten percent.”)

We’re shown how our decisions can be affected by how a proposition is presented (e.g. “…twice as many patients opt for surgery when told there’s an eighty percent change of their surviving instead of a twenty percent chance of their dying.”) And how unlikely we are to change our minds. (In spite of the enormous amount on money spent on political campaigns, it is highly unlikely that a person will change their initial opinion on a party, person or platform.)

It can get a bit discouraging. Encouragingly, however, after showing us our foibles, Lehrer then provides evidence that, by recognizing how we can make misjudgments, we can then attempt to influence this system to our own advantage, making us better decision makers, better learners. We do this, in part by “…force(ing) ourselves to think about the information we don’t want to think about, to pay attention to the data that disturbs our entrenched beliefs.” (Think Lincoln and his Team of Rivals.) We not only should question authority (even our own), but encourage consultation and even criticism from those around us. Students need to be praised for hard work, inquisitiveness, critical thinking and the importance of learning from mistakes.

In other words, we can decide to be smarter.

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