Review of How We Decide by

Book cover for How We Decide

N.B. September 2013: So apparently this book is a pile of plagiarism. This review is therefore preserved for posterity, but I no longer recommend this book.

In my recent review of The Grand Design I went on about my love of science, particularly of physics. I’ll be honest: although biology is really, really cool, I also find it kind of gross. It’s full of squishy stuff, and it was my least favourite of the Holy Trinity of high school science classes (physics, biology, chemistry) for that reason. When I talk biology, I tend to gravitate toward the more abstract areas: genetics, evolutionary biology, and of course, neuroscience—once you get down to the microscopic or molecular levels, the squick factor is considerably reduced. Plus, the brain is just fascinating. It is the undiscovered country of biology: how does consciousness work? What makes us us? The brain is an amazing organ, simultaneously incredibly flexible and resistant yet also so fragile. Even as Jonah Lehrer explores the decision-making process from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, How We Decide also reaffirms my admiration for and awe of the brain.

I learned a great deal from this book. Some of it was about football, because Lehrer opens the first chapter with an analysis of Tom Brady’s performance in the 2002 Super Bowl. Football confuses me at the best of times, but fortunately Lehrer includes plenty of other case studies: airplane disasters, debt counselling, basketball performance, etc. How We Decide is definitely a work of popular science, and it seems to be trying to appeal to the broadest audience possible. However, I approached it as someone interested in learning about neuroscience, and in this respect the book did not let me down.

The focus of How We Decide, especially in the early chapters, is on the distinction between rational decision-making and emotional decision-making. Lehrer challenges the myth that humans are “rational animals”, that our rationality sets us apart and allows us to tame unreliable emotion. His counterexample is the stunning account of people who have experienced damage to their orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). This little area of the prefrontal cortex (itself important to the process of decision-making) has a huge impact on how we decide: it is “responsible for integrating visceral emotions into the decision-making process”, and lacking it means one essentially decides based on rational criteria alone. If the myth of our rationality were true, this would result in the ultimate decision maker, completely unswayed by appeals to emotion. Instead, people with damaged or removed OFCs are indecisive: without emotional cues, they are left to analyze even the smallest decision with relentless attention to the pros and the cons. Emotion might sometimes cloud our judgement, but it can also play a vital role in impelling us.

Later, Lehrer looks at the converse, where emotion misleads one’s decision-making process. He uses high-stakes situations, such as playing Deal or No Deal, to illustrate that emotion can prevent us from choosing the better settlement. When we’re angry or feel that our pride is on the line, we can be rash, leading us to reject otherwise fair offers. Credit cards and other abstractions of money make it easier to spend money, because our emotional brain is fooled into thinking we aren’t spending all that much money at all. (Lehrer attributes the subprime mortgage bubble to this kind of thinking, and points out that this is how credit card companies sucker us in to high lifetime interest rates by using low introductory offers. If you can only take away a single piece of advice from How We Decide, try this: “read only the fine print.”)

In fact, what begins to emerge from these chapters on rationality versus emotion is a theory of automatic versus deliberative decision-making. For situations that are familiar to us, it’s best to keep autopilot on and let our unconscious do the thinking. Our brain is used to the situation, and thinking through the steps is more likely to screw us up than help (this is where Lehrer’s sports examples make a lot of sense). However, as will come to no surprise to most of us, our automatic brains are very bad at dealing with unexpected information. In particular, most people’s automatic brains suck at math. This is where rationality and a more thoughtful decision-making process becomes essential: we have to analyze the new information and figure out how to incorporate it into our model before we can proceed. If we do not, we might end up rejecting a deal that is much more lucrative than what any of the remaining briefcases might offer.

All this might sound rather obvious so far (if so, congratulations on your smartitude), and you might be thinking, but what about the science behind these conclusions? Well, it’s there, but it’s so well integrated into the book that if I start trying to tease it out and present it for our mutual amusement, I’ll probably just end up making it sound dry and boring. Suffice it to say, the second chapter is called “The Predictions of Dopamine”, and Lehrer goes into great detail through the book about the roles various sections of the brain play in decision-making, as well as how we know this—mostly fMRIs, sometimes monkey torture. And of course, it’s worth keeping in mind that none of this is as simple as Lehrer makes it out to be, and that there are probably alternative explanations—e.g., game theory, evolutionary psychology, etc. Lehrer occasionally makes reference to these, but for the most part he sticks with a very functional exploration of our brain. And that’s fine; if I want to read different perspectives, I can always seek out books on those particular topics.

In the spirit of this book’s subject matter, I’ll acknowledge a bias in my decision to like this book. How We Decide lends support to a lot of positions I personally endorse. For example, Lehrer points out that, “people with a genetic mutation that reduces the number of dopamine receptors in the ACC [anterior cingulate cortex] … are significantly more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol”. This belies the contention that addiction is a choice rather than a disease and that addicts simply lack sufficient “willpower” to improve their lives. I’m not saying that we should just drug everyone based on his or her neurological profile—but certainly understanding biological factors that influence our tendencies can help us combat negative tendencies, such as addiction. (Lehrer and I also share a mild disdain for economics and attempts to play the stock market like it’s a predictable phenomenon.)

If there is a theme to How We Decide, it’s that we often suck at making decisions. Not only do we have numerous biases left over from evolutionary adaptation and social inculcation, but the complex interplay between conscious and unconscious decision-making means sometimes we relegate decisions to a part of our brain that isn’t particularly suited to them. Lehrer’s theme, however, is that not all is hopeless: by being aware of these biases, by thinking about how we think, we can mitigate them and improve our ability to make decisions. It turns out that how we decide is influenced a great deal by thinking about how we decide.

And so that’s why I loved this book. It is an excellent scientific look at decision-making through both anecdotal and empirical evidence. (The former is, of course, worthless in a court of science but invaluable in the court of opinion.) Moreover, How We Decide is useful, offering salient advice about how to improve one’s ability to make decisions. I don’t doubt that many people will dislike this book, or at least Lehrer’s style or his derision for economics, but I do highly recommend you give it a try.


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