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
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.
Peter D. Kramer
…[Lehrer's] expert at both storytelling and hard science. is always fascinating
The Washington Post
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
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.
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
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
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."