Book Review: How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer has been translating neuroscience into prose comprehensible by the lay reader for years, and How We Decide helps readers understand and even apply current research in the process of human decision-making.

Lehrer begins with a look at expert decision-making, and how individuals with the right training and experience can make high quality decisions seemingly with little or no conscious thought. A football quarterback, for example, has only a second or two after the ball is snapped to analyze the entire field, ascertain what strategy the defense is employing, determine where one of his own receivers is likely to be most open, and then throw the football to the spot where that player will be by the time the ball gets there.

Decisions like this are being made by the emotional brain, Lehrer says, and research suggests that a big part of the learning process is driven by dopamine neurons aided by reviewing what was less than perfect in each past attempt. (See my earlier post, Managing by Mistakes.)

In a chapter titled “Choking on Thought,” Lehrer describes how too much thinking can actually lead to bad decisions: our emotional brain circuitry has already arrived at an optimal answer, but in attempting to analyze the problem logically our higher cognitive functions muddle things and may arrive at a worse conclusiong. (See Paralysis of Analysis: Overthinking and Bad Decisions.)

In “The Brain Is an Argument” Lehrer gets into the crux of the challenge facing marketers and advertisers trying to persuade consumers to buy their product: the decision-making process in our brain is hardly clear-cut and logical, but rather a bubbling competition between alternative choices. Typically, the alternatives have different characteristics and advantages, and the winner is often hard to predict.

In “The Poker Hand,” Lehrer starts to summarize a formula for effective decision-making. Simple problems can be effectively solved via reasoning. Sometimes, a calculator is enough – Lehrer cites emotionally-driven decisions on the game show Deal or No Deal? which fly in the face of logic and ultimately prove disastrous.

Complex problems, however, need more than our prefrontal cortex to add up the numbers. These problems are best solved by gathering information and letting our subconscious work on the problem for a while. The “intuitive” decision is likely to be the best one. Deciding which problems are best suited for each style can be difficult, but Lehrer suggests that one guide is whether the problem can be reduced to numeric terms, like the prizes and probabilities in the game show. If so, rational analysis works. And even though poker would appear to be all about probabilities, in fact the most successful players work heavily on instinct based on observing the behavior of their opponents.

Marketers won’t find lots of actionable neuromarketing insights in How We Decide, but they will gain a much better understanding of what we know about the decision-making process. All readers can benefit from the advice about how to improve one’s own decision-making strategies. Lehrer writes in an engaging and readable style, and there are plenty of anecdotes to keep the text lively and illustrate the more technical research findings.

My brain told me to buy this book, and, whether it was my prefrontal cortex or a deeper emotional area offering that advice, it was an excellent decision.