How We Decide

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Overview

The first book to use the unexpected discoveries of neuroscience to help us make the best decisions

Since Plato, philosophers have described the decision-making process as either rational or emotional: we carefully deliberate, or we “blink” and go with our gut. But as scientists break open the mind’s black box with the latest tools of neuroscience, they’re discovering that this is not how the mind works. Our best decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason—and the precise mix depends on the situation. When buying a house, for example, it’s best to let our unconscious mull over the many variables. But when we’re picking a stock, intuition often leads us astray. The trick is to determine when to use the different parts of the brain, and to do this, we need to think harder (and smarter) about how we think.

Jonah Lehrer arms us with the tools we need, drawing on cutting-edge research as well as the real-world experiences of a wide range of “deciders”—from airplane pilots and hedge fund investors to serial killers and poker players.

Lehrer shows how people are taking advantage of the new science to make better television shows, win more football games, and improve military intelligence. His goal is to answer two questions that are of interest to just about anyone, from CEOs to firefighters: How does the human mind make decisions? And how can we make those decisions better?

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A Selection of Barnes & Noble Recommends
A talented journalist taps the latest research in neuroscience and behavioral economics to explain what we now know about human decision making.

Each of us makes thousands of decisions a day; so many, in fact, that we make most of them without much forethought or rational reflection. But, as Jonah Lehrer proves in this persuasive book, making "rational decisions" about even the most consequential matters isn't always the wisest strategy. Drawing on cutting-edge studies, he describes how our minds evaluate incoming data and why the optimal mix of feeling and reason depends on the problem at hand. Packed with surprises, How We Decide brims with counterintuitive advice: New Yorker contributor Lehrer argues, for instance, that it's best to emotionally "feel out" major purchases, such as buying a house, before making the jump. Stimulating reading for fans of Malcolm Gladwell.
Steven Johnson
Explaining decision-making on the scale of neurons makes for a challenging task, but Lehrer handles it with confidence and grace. As an introduction to the cognitive struggle between the brain's "executive" rational centers and its more intuitive regions, How We Decide succeeds with great panache, though readers of other popular books on this subject (Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error and Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, for example) will be familiar with a number of the classic experiments Lehrer describes.
—The New York Times
Peter D. Kramer
…[Lehrer's] expert at both storytelling and hard science. is always fascinating
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

What is going on in the brain of a pilot deciding how to handle an emergency or a man trying to escape a wildfire? Does reason or emotion rule our decision making? Seed magazine editor-at-large Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist) brings recent research in neurobiology to life as he shows that the view, dating back to Plato, of the decision-making brain as a charioteer (reason) trying to control wild horses (emotions) comes up short. As Lehrer describes in fluid prose, the brain's reasoning centers are easily fooled, often making judgments based on nonrational factors like presentation (a sales pitch or packaging). And Lehrer cites a study of investors given varying amounts of financial data to show that our inner charioteer also can be confused by too much information. Even more surprisingly, research shows that "gut instinct" often does make better decisions than long, drawn-out reasoning, and people with impaired emotional responses have trouble coping with the decisions required in everyday life. Lehrer is a delight to read, and this is a fascinating book (some of which appeared recently, in a slightly different form, in the New Yorker) that will help everyone better understand themselves and their decision making. (Feb. 9)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Rhodes scholar Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist) takes listeners on a journey through how the human brain makes decisions, exploring factors that influence decision-making and combining medical diagnostic data with real-life examples. While Malcolm Gladwell's Blink discussed from afar how reason and intuition influence snap decisions, Lehrer's book digs more deeply into new research from the fields of psychology, sociology, and neuroscience to provide an erudite, scholarly view of the inner workings of the human brain as it makes decisions. Audie Award nominee David Colacci's (The Suspect) evenhanded delivery will help listeners of this often technical material stay focused. For interested lay readers as well as students and professors of psychology/psychiatry. [Audio clip available through brillianceaudio.com.—Ed.]—Dale Farris, Groves, TX


—Dale Farris
Kirkus Reviews
A Gladwellian exploration of the brain's inner workings during the decision-making process. Given the recent deluge of pop-science books, readers may find it difficult to make a selection. Enter Seed and Scientific American contributor Lehrer's second book (Proust Was a Neuroscientist, 2007), a laudable attempt to help people understand how their brains make decisions-and hopefully, improve the process. On the former point, the book is a treasure trove of scientific data, clinical research and real-life examples of decision-making processes. On the latter point, however, it leaves something to be desired. At its best, Lehrer's narrative is a compelling mixture of recently discovered facts and intriguing theories about the differences between the rational and emotional centers of the brain. The author's research indicates, somewhat counterintuitively, that the emotional areas are the primary drivers when making complex decisions that involve multiple variables, such as purchasing a house or car. Lehrer also looks at anecdotal evidence of those theories in action, ranging from the incredible efforts of a pilot to land a plane after its hydraulic systems failed (a prime example of using the reason center of the brain to conquer fear and take action) to clinical experiments involving tests to see how long unsupervised four-year-olds can resist a marshmallow (not very, in most cases). In its most effective chapters, the book ties research to practical applications, such as a 401(k) program designed to overcome our irrational need for immediate reward (to the detriment of long-term saving) by deferring the start of the program until a few months after employment begins. Other sections lack thesame practical applicability, and the vague generality of much of the decision-making advice feels more therapist than scientist. May not facilitate great improvements in decision-making, but the Cliff Clavins of the world will exult in the factoids and anecdotes. Author tour to New York, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Seattle
From the Publisher
“Cash or credit? Punt or go for first down? Deal or no deal? Life is filled with puzzling choices. Reporting from the frontiers of neuroscience and armed with riveting case studies of how pilots, quarterbacks, and others act under fire, Jonah Lehrer presents a dazzlingly authoritative and accessible account of how we make decisions, what’s happening in our heads as we do so, and how we might all become better ‘deciders.’ Luckily, this one’s a no-brainer: Read this book.”—Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

"Over the past two decades, research in neuroscience and behavioral economics has revolutionized our understanding of human decision making. Jonah Lehrer brings it all together in this insightful and enjoyable book, giving readers the information they need to make the smartest decisions.”—Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes’ Error and Looking for Spinoza

“Jonah Lehrer ingeniously weaves neuroscience, sports, war, psychology, and politics into a fascinating tale of human decision making. In the process, he makes us much wiser.”—Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational

“Should we go with instinct or analysis? The answer, Lehrer explains, in this smart and delightfully readable book, is that it depends on the situation. Knowing which method works best in which case is not just useful but fascinating. Lehrer proves once again that he’s a master storyteller and one of the best guides to the practical lessons from new neuroscience.”—Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired and author of The Long Tail

“As Lehrer describes in fluid prose, the brain’s reasoning centers are easily fooled, often making judgments based on nonrational factors like presentation (a sales pitch or packaging)...Lehrer is a delight to read, and this is a fascinating book (some of which appeared recently, in a slightly different form, in the New Yorker) that will help everyone better understand themselves and their decision making.” —Publisher's Weekly, starred review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618620111
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 2/9/2009
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer is a Contributing Editor at Wired and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. He writes the Head Case column for The Wall Street Journal and regularly appears on WNYC’s Radiolab. His writing has also appeared in Nature, The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American and Outside. He’s the author of two previous books, Proust Was A Neuroscientist and How We Decide. He graduated from Columbia University and attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

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Read an Excerpt

The quick decisions made by a quarterback on a football field provide a window into the inner workings of the brain. In the space of a few frenetic seconds, before a linebacker crushes him into the ground, an NFL quarterback has to make a series of hard choices. The pocket is collapsing around him — the pocket begins to collapse before it exists — but he can’t flinch or wince. His eyes must stay focused downfield, looking for some meaningful sign amid the action, an open man on a crowded field. Throwing the ball is the easy part.
     These passing decisions happen so fast they don’t even seem like decisions. We are used to seeing football on television, captured by the cameras far above the grassy stage. From this distant perspective, the players appear to be moving in some sort of violent ballet; the sport looks exquisitely choreographed. You can see the receivers spread the zone and watch the pocket slowly disintegrate. It’s easy to detect the weak spots of the defense and find the target with man-on-man coverage. You can tell which linebackers bought the play-action fake and see the cornerback racing in on the blitz. When you watch the game from this omniscient angle — coaches call it "the eye in the sky" — it appears as if the quarterback is simply following orders, as if he knows where he is going to throw the ball before the play begins.

     But this view of the game is deeply misleading. After the ball is snapped, the ordered sequence of neat X’s and O’s that fill the spiral-bound playbook degenerates into a street brawl. There’s a symphony of grunts and groans and the meaty echoes of fat men hitting hard ground. Receivers get pushed off their routes, passing angles get cut off, and inside blitzes derail the best intentions. The offensive line is an unpredictable wrestling match. Before the quarterback can make an effective decision, he needs to assimilate all of this new information and be aware of the approximate location of every player on the field.

     The savage chaos of the game, the way every play is a mixture of careful planning and risky improvisation, is what makes the job of an NFL quarterback so difficult. Even while he’s immersed in the violence — the defensive line clawing at his body — the quarterback has to stand still and concentrate. He needs to look past the mayhem and make sense of all the moving bodies. Where is his receiver going? Will the safety break toward the ball? Is the linebacker going to drop back into coverage? Did his tight end pick up the blitz? Before a pass can be thrown — before the open man can be found — all of these questions need to be answered. Each pass is really a guess, a hypothesis launched into the air, but the best quarterbacks find ways to make better guesses. What separates Tom Brady and Joe Montana and Peyton Manning and John Elway and the other great quarterbacks of the modern NFL era from the rest is their ability to find the right receiver at the right time. (The Patriots like to pass out of a five-wide formation, which means that Brady often checks off five different receivers before he decides where to throw the ball.) No other team sport is so dependent on the judgment of a single player.

     NFL scouts take the decision-making skills of quarterbacks very seriously. The league requires that every player in the draft take the Wonderlic intelligence test, which is essentially a shorter version of the standard IQ test. The test is twelve minutes long and consists of fifty questions that get progressively harder as the test goes along. Here’s an example of an easy Wonderlic question:

"Paper sells for 21 cents per pad. What will four pads cost?"

And here’s a hard Wonderlic question:

"Three individuals form a partnership and agree to divide the profits equally. X invests $9,000, Y invests $7,000, Z invests $4,000. If the profits are $4,800, how much less does X receive than if the profits were divided in proportion to the amount invested?"

     The underlying thesis of the Wonderlic test is that players who are better at math and logic problems will make better decisions in the pocket. At first glance, this seems like a reasonable assumption. No other position in sports requires such extreme cognitive talents. Successful quarterbacks need to memorize hundreds of offensive plays and dozens of different defensive formations. They need to spend hours studying game tape of their opponents and be able to put that knowledge to use on the field. In many instances, quarterbacks are even responsible for changing plays at the line of scrimmage. They are like coaches with shoulder pads.

     As a result, an NFL team starts to get nervous when a quarterback’s score on the Wonderlic test is too far below the average for the position. For quarterbacks, the average is 25. (In comparison, the average score for computer programmers is 28. Janitors, on average, score 15, as do running backs.) Vince Young, the star quarterback from the University of Texas, reportedly scored a 6 on the test, which led many teams to publicly question his ability to succeed in the NFL.

     But Young ended up excelling in the pros. And he isn’t the only quarterback who achieved success despite a poor Wonderlic score. Dan Marino scored 14. Brett Favre’s Wonderlic score was 22, and Randall Cunningham and Terry Bradshaw both scored 15. All of these quarterbacks have been or will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. (In recent years, Favre has surpassed many of the passing records once held by Marino, such as most passing yards and touchdowns in a career.) Furthermore, several quarterbacks with unusually high Wonderlic scores — players like Alex Smith and Matt Leinart, who both scored above 35 on the test and were top-ten picks in the 2005 NFL draft — have struggled in the NFL, largely because they make poor decisions on the field.

     The reason there is virtually no correlation between the results of the Wonderlic and the success of quarterbacks in the NFL is that finding the open man involves a very different set of decision-making skills than solving an algebra problem. While quarterbacks need to grapple with complexity — the typical offensive playbook is several inches thick — they don’t make sense of the football field the way they make sense of questions on a multiple-choice exam. The Wonderlic measures a specific kind of thought process, but the best quarterbacks don’t think in the pocket. There isn’t time.

     Take that pass to Troy Brown. Brady’s decision depended on a long list of variables. He needed to know that the linebacker wouldn’t fall back into coverage and that there were no cornerbacks in the area waiting for an interception. After that, he had to calculate the ideal place to hit Brown with the ball so that Brown would have plenty of room to run after the catch. Then he needed to figure out how to make a throw without hitting the defensive lineman blocking his passing lane. If Brady were forced to consciously analyze this decision — if he treated it like a question on the Wonderlic test — then every pass would require a lot of complicated trigonometry as he computed his passing angles on the plane of the football field. But how can you contemplate the math when five angry linemen are running straight at you? The answer is simple: you can’t. If a quarterback hesitates for even a split second, he is going to get sacked.

     So how does a quarterback do it? How does he make a decision? It’s like asking a baseball player why he decided to swing the bat at a particular pitch: the velocity of the game makes thought impossible. Brady can afford to give each receiver only a split second of attention before he has to move on to the next. As soon as he glances at a body in motion, he must immediately decide if that body will be open a few seconds in the future. As a result, a quarterback is forced to evaluate each of his passing alternatives without knowing how he’s evaluating them. Brady chooses a target without understanding why exactly he’s settled on that target. Did he pass to Troy Brown with twenty-nine seconds remaining in the Super Bowl because the middle linebacker had ceded too much space, or because the cornerbacks were following the other receivers downfield and leaving a small gap in the center of the field? Or did Brady settle on Brown because all the other passing options were tightly covered, and he knew that he needed a long completion? The quarterback can’t answer these questions. It’s as if his mind is making decisions without him. Even quarterbacks are mystified by their talents. "I don’t know how I know where to pass," Brady says. "There are no firm rules. You just feel like you’re going to the right place . . . And that’s where I throw it."

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Table of Contents

1 The Quarterback in the Pocket 1

2 The Predictions of Dopamine 28

3 Fooled by a Feeling 57

4 The Uses of Reason 93

5 Choking on Thought 133

6 The Moral Mind 167

7 The Brain Is an Argument 196

8 The Poker Hand 219

Coda 251

Acknowledgments 263

Notes 266

Bibliography 274

Index 288

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 1, 2009

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    One of my favorite books of all time.

    The first thing I'd like to point out is that this book is very versatile, in that I believe general readers will love this book just as much as I did as a student/scholar. The examples, stories, and research Lehrer used were captivating. Any football fan will love the story of Tom Brady in the chapter Quarterback in the Pocket. This study of decision making is an incredible piece of literature in the field of psychology and has been a great asset to my understanding of the mind. One of the key messages of this book was to think about how we think, in order to improve the process. Don't be alarmed by terminology if you're a general reader, as Lehrer explains the technical terms in an artful way while being informative.

    I could go on, but the thing I really want to say is: READ THIS BOOK!

    16 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 11, 2009

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    Good read, but of limited utility

    Although an engrossing and entertaining read, when finished, I found myself hardpressed to take much away of any practical value from the book. I had a similar reaction to a related book, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. The applications and implications of this line of study still seems in its infancy, at best.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 14, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Fantastic.

    I've given this book to two of my friends as gifts. It changed how I made decisions.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Great Read

    Lehrer does a great job at introducing neuroscience to a broad audience. Before reading this book I had never heard of prefrontal cortex or amygdala, and mistakenly viewed credit cards as a convenient tool for everyday life! From the Patriots winning the Super Bowl to a story about a psychopath hiding bodies under his house, this book is sure to keep you entertained. Even though he uses quite a few scientific terms, he does so in a way easy to understand and relate to. Great book!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 24, 2009

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    Who would have thunk it?

    Fascinating. The introduction has this author in a flight simulator in Canada. The first chapter discusses Tom Brady of the Patriots making a Superbowl decision. Lehrer goes on to discuss the problems one man had making decisions after the "emotional" portion of his brain was impaired.

    While some of the examples Lehrer chooses to illuminate his thesis are familiar from other books on psychology and neuroscience, many are new and absorbing. I came away with insights on how we make decisions under stress, and how psychology experiments are devised to test decision-making.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 6, 2009

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    Eye-opening, exactly what a book should be

    This book is exactly what I look for - new ideas, compelling presented, backed by research, and effective in presenting a new way of seeing things and acting.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 18, 2009

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    I Also Recommend:

    Important Book For Your Shelf

    Lehrer is a good wordsmith and made reading this book an enjoyable experience. I learned new research on the brain's reasoning centers and how they are easily fooled, causing us to make decisions based on illogical factors. This book will help everyone understand their thought processes and their decision making.

    I am a great fan of Blink. As such, I appreciated the author filling in some of the missing pieces that was left out of Blink.

    We can all something new from the practical lessons from new neuroscience.

    Continued research in neuroscience and behavioral economics will continue to revolutionize our understanding of human decision-making. As the field progresses, it would be my desire that Lehrer will once again explain what it all means and how to fit it into our reality.

    I hope you find this review helpful

    Michael L. Gooch - Author of Wingtips with Spurs: Cowboy Wisdom for Today's Business Leaders

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2009

    INSIGHTFUL

    THROUGHLY ENJOYABLE

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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