Book Review: How We Decide

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 gives 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.

Previous post:

Next post: