Why Choose This Book? How We Make Decisions by Read Montague sounds like the perfect read for neuromarketing and neuroeconomics enthusiasts. In fact, the book does provide some interesting insights but the overall density of actionable information, at least for marketers, is fairly low. The title might lead one to believe that the book is a distillation of consumer purchasing behavior, but in fact it is a wide-ranging discussion of the neuroscience of human decision making.

Montague spends much of the book in a discussion of the theories of Alan Turing, computational neuroscience, and dopamine signaling. This isn’t the easiest material to describe to a general audience. Casual lay readers will find this discussion slow going, if not impenetrable, while those with actual knowledge of the field (a relatively small target market, to be sure) may find it too “dumbed down.” Still, for readers interested in brain science who aren’t neuroscience post-docs, Montague does a good job of summarizing the theoretical underpinnings and recent research in these areas.

Most of the book discusses how the brain’s “valuation” system works. In essence, every decision we make represents a balancing of competing interests. The valuation process, though not fully understood, involves both computational and chemical components which eventually result in a binary decision being reached.

One of the more interesting topics Montague covers is “regret theory.” Our brains are programmed to learn from rewards, i.e., if we do something and are rewarded, our brains form connections to encourage that behavior. An interesting twist on this is that we also apparently learn from missed opportunities. I.e., if we make a choice, and it proves to be an unrewarding one compared to the alternative, our brains also store that information. Montague conducted experiments measuring investor behavior in various simulated stock market conditions. Every investment decision has the potential for reward and regret. Investments can go up or down, and one can risk too little or too much. A small investment in a stock that doubles overnight may activate both reward (“My investment doubled!”) and regret (“If only I had invested a lot more…”) circuits. Montague’s subjects showed a variety of behavior and results under different simulated market conditions. Interestingly, when the subjects were (unknown to them) presented with market conditions leading up to the 1929 crash, every subject went broke. Apparently, the market ups and downs of that period were the equivalent of a neuro-optimized slot machine – the combination of rewards and regret caused people to bet larger sums, and then keep betting, until they were broke.

Neuromarketing buffs will find the penultimate chapter, From Pepsi to Terrorism, the most interesting. A portion of that chapter discusses the neuroscience of branding, and Montague’s own version of “The Pepsi Challenge.” In a series of experiments, Montague’s team concluded that people’s choices when simply tasting colas in the lab had no relation to their actual brand preferences, i.e., the cola they purchased in the store. When exposed to the brand, though, Coke drinkers showed a neural response to their brand while Pepsi drinkers did not. Montague concluded that, for some reason, Coke had established its brand in the reward and valuation circuitry of some brains, while Pepsi had not. He didn’t have a good explanation for that, and notes that caffeine (an ingredient in both colas) can interfere with dopamine processing.

Montague even speculates on the origin of marketing:

Marketing and advertising are not innovations of modern civilization; they are deeply biological functions.

He describes flowering plants as advertising to attract pollinating insects. For their part, the insects have brains with reward circuitry to ensure that they return to the most productive food sources, associating variables like the appearance of a flower (it’s “brand”) with plentiful nectar. Other natural advertising messages include “Don’t eat me, I’m poisonous,” “I’m likely to produce strong offspring,” and so on. Even though humans have mostly moved past the hunter-gatherer stage, our brains are still prewired to seek rewarding experiences and favor those circumstances that produced the rewards.

How should we answer the book’s rhetorical title question, “Why Choose This Book?” Brain science enthusiasts should buy it because of its wide-ranging examination of the latest thinking on human decision making. That question is a bit harder to answer for marketers, whom I’d advise to read the Pepsi chapter at their local bookstore; if they are still intrigued and want to gain a deeper understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of that work, then they, too, can buy it.

A few other opinions from around the Web:

Mind and Markets – “His energy and enthusiasm for physics, computer science, economics and psychology gives him a quite original approach to thinking about what the mind is for, and he does an excellent job of guiding us step by step to this new conception that is driving research today.”

Ben’s Book Blog – “Good title, because I was wondering that even while I finished reading it. This book gets off to a good start, loses its target in the middle, and finishes well. All in all, it should only be a 100 pages long and you’d come away the same thesis…”

Trevor Silvester – “Read Montague explores the new field of Computational Neuroscience. Does that sound like it’s going to be easy? You’re right, it’s not, but Read Montague writes well, and with a light touch.”

On Product Management – “…a fascinating book about how the brain makes decisions. It brings neuroscience, biology and computer science together…”

La revue de livres – “…I was somewhat disappointed because of the overly general and simple tone of the book. It reminded me of Freakonomics in terms of composition… recommended to non-experts or anyone looking for a quick and educational read.”

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