Brain Fight: Who’s the Decider?


Brain Argument

One of my favorite chapters in How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer is The Brain is an Argument. In this chapter, Lehrer highlights how complex our decision-making process really is, and how competing options battle for supremacy.

Introspection is rarely a great way to examine human behavior, but I’m sure that like me, you’ve been in a restaurant, and, after studying the menu, found yourself unable to decide between a few interesting selections. The salmon sounds good, and would be the healthiest choice. The restaurant, though, is known for its excellent steaks, and the filet looks tempting. To further confound the issue, a somewhat more exotic rack of lamb is on the menu – not particularly healthy, but a dish that you might not encounter at another restaurant for a while. Then again, the lamb dish is a few dollars more expensive than the filet… that strikes you as a bit hight, is it worth it?

At this point, your brain is at war with itself. Different interests – the salmon would be healthy, but might not the steak taste better? And surely your arteries could handle one 8-ounce filet… the lamb might be even tastier, and in your area it’s hard to find. You can’t remember the last time you had tender lamb chops… Meanwhile, “buying pain” kicks in, arguing for the salmon, the cheapest of the three dishes, and even suggesting you take another look at the chicken breast, costing just half of what the filet does.

George Loewenstein of CMU and Brian Knutson of Stanford actually observed this process using fMRI brain scans. They showed subjects pictures of items they could buy, and then showed them a price. Depending on how low or high the price was compared to the perceived value, different brain areas lit up. High prices activated the brain’s insula, often associated with pain. Low prices excited the prefrontal cortex, which “did the math” and liked what it saw. As Lehrer notes,

You don’t look at the electric grill or box of chocolates and perform an explicit cost-benefit analysis. Instead, you outsource much of this calculation to your emotional brain and then rely on relative amounts of pleasure vs. pain to tell you what to purchase. (During many of the decisions, the rational prefrontal cortex was largely a spectator, standing idly by while the NAcc and insula argued with each other.)

Marketers need to keep the “brain as argument” concept in mind, and bolster their case by appealing to one or more key decision-making factors. Most importantly, marketers have to realize that much of the decision-making process is carried out by the emotional parts of the brain. Reams of facts and figures won’t compete with sensory appeals, stories, emotional pitches, and other techniques that will be processed not by the prefrontal cortex but by more primitive parts of our brain – in most cases, the latter are the real “deciders.”

  1. J. Franklin Proeber says

    What is interesting about your example is the amount of dissonance created by justifying why buying the steak is a better choice because it’s “known for” steaks. I’m sure Loewenstein and Knutson properly adjusted for variables like these, but in an every day setting, when you observe the elasticity of the purchase decision along with, dissonance factors, and actual need placed on products along with other variables that are being attributed to purchasing behavior it makes for one confusing mess. However, high prices usually activates painful responses from me as well.

  2. Alex Lim says

    Interesting post, while reading this I was reminded by a lesson I took in my psychology class about the id, ego and superego. The id is like a selfish part that wants pleasure, so probably the id will tell to buy the most delicious food in the menu even how expensive it is. However, the superego will likely make you feel guilty of your behavior. The ego will moderate the two, as this makes a realistic decision that satisfies the id in a practical manner.

  3. Tom Wanek says

    I recently read this same chapter and observed my own behavior while searching for food at Chicago O’Hare. Price, nutrition, taste and wait time were all battling it out in my mind. It just goes to show you how complex decision making can be.

  4. Roger Dooley says

    Good example, Tom, and one that most of us can relate to. The variables may change, but the process remains the same!


  5. btoone says

    Here we go again Limbic system and prefrontal cortex decision dilemma, glad you brought up the restaurant as an example, excellent choice…

    Q#1 who paying the bill?

    if you’re a girl invited by this cool guy to this fancy restaurant on a date, you know deep down he’s picking up the tab right? ;D

    You have a lamb and the salmon staring at you eat me eat me

    Q#1 How’s your diet situation? see

    it all starts with our ego and our ego is always fueled by emotion Hummm eat the salmon it’s healthy lots of protein you will feel good, not stuffed at the end of the soirée and definitely no guilt what so ever….

    Ego #2 stares at the steak yumm juicy and the ego says I love red wine but red wine doesn’t go with salmon but with a steak it s marvel ..

    in either cases he’s paying the bill then how are you going to decide? that depends on how the salmon or the streak is presented. remember what we always say: wel always eat with our eyes that’s when retinal imagery comes but let’s face if you’re really a seafood lover would you go to a steak restaurant? and in you’re a steal lover you would know in advance where they serve exquisite steak in town.

    So actually there pre-disposed decision alerady made prior to arriving to a restaurant because I f I feel like Mcdonald
    would I go to Chez maxime for that.

    So to keep the story short, our limbic system is the commander in chief even though
    the reptilian brain said hey I’m the boss! but at the end limbic system is like daddy ‘s little girl whatever daddy’s little want she gets then later after is all says and done, comes Mr preferential cortex and say I told you so Mr rational boring cortex who’s forever analyzing the process to the teeth

    So to summarize this whole ordeal of rational and emotional… the whole damn world is driven by emotions, wars are driven by emotion, gambling is driven by emotion buying another red dress to go with your red shoe while you already have 3 pairs of red dresses and Mr PC man who has to have a trillion GIG-bites of ram while he can only 2 gig per second but hey a trillion gig is in so he goes exhausting his credit does he think how he’s going to make the rent next month? the answer is no
    it’s the NOW that matter.

    So at the end when he pays for your salmon
    you still go and say I should have had the steak ;D

    JJ –

  6. Mailing Lists says

    Great article, very well written. I’m a big fan of Jonah’s book, I’ve read it multiple times and always find useful information. Learning how decisions are made can help you effectively market to clients. This book goes in depth about this process.

  7. katchja says

    Is this why investing in expensive items does not happen very often?

    Is this why we’re tempted not to pay the bills and rather postpone them?

    Is this why we’d rather not return the favor that someone made us?

    does this mean we’d rather cheat in the way we handle our resources? it fits with the game theory as applied to economic behavior..

  8. Rotkapchen says

    Sure driven by emotion, but that does not either 1) suppose that the emotion that drove the decision was influenced by the ad 2) without knowing which way to trigger the emotion the ad can just as readily trigger negative emotion 3) not to mention that as was already suggested, the greatest influencer is going to be the surrounding emotional landscape of the individual at the moment the message is received.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I think all of those factors matter, Rotkapchen. The key point is that the decision-making process is very dynamic indeed, with the brain balancing alternatives in real time.


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