How We Decide

How We Decide

by Jonah Lehrer


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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?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547247991
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 01/14/2010
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 302
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

JONAH LEHRER is editor at large for Seed magazine and the author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist. A graduate of Columbia University and a Rhodes Scholar, Lehrer has worked in the lab of Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel and has written for The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. He edits the "Mind Matters" blog for Scientific American, and writes his own highly regarded blog, "The Frontal Cortex."

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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How We Decide 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 220 reviews.
TimDonaldson More than 1 year ago
In this intriguing little book Jonah Lehrer explores the interplay between emotion and logic in decision making. When should we force back our emotions and engage in logical cost-benefit analysis? Credit cards, totally new situations that we have no experience in, when we can't outrun the fire, etc. When should we rely on instinct and turn our brain off? (When we have a lot of experience and no time to think, such as Tom Brady on his 3rd read with a linebacker closing in, or an opera singer halfway through the song, etc.) When should we get some data, sleep on it, and then decide based on emotion? (When buying houses, cars, or furniture). Chapter 7 caught my interest the most, as he discussed the brain issues involved with Mormons and Republicans. well, he didn't call it that, he called it political partisans who have the sin of certainty, and it works in all ways, but I have been observing and contemplating such minds daily since I returned to Utah after law school in December 2006, and in my zip code, it is Mormons and Republicans who are overcertain about everything, big and little. Contrast all of what follows with Abraham Lincoln as described in 'Team of Rivals', as he purposely filled his cabinet with intellectual and ideological diversity as much as he can. And with Colin Powell, who always asked for 1- what you know 2- what you don't know and 3- what you think, emphasizing that all 3 must always be kept seperate. A brain that's intolerant of uncertainty- that can't stand the argument- often tricks itself into thinking the wrong thing. You just can't short-circuit the process. Unfortunately, the mind often surrenders to the temptation of shoddy top-down thinking. Voters with strong partisan affiliations are a case study in how not for form opinions: their brains are shoddy and impermeable, since they already know what they believe. 9 of 10 registered members of a political party vote for the same party 15 years later. They put partisans in a fMRI machine and exposed them to inconsistencies and conflicting evidence regarding their preferred candidate. The brains showed them use reason to reinforce their certainty. "Once the subjects had arrived at favorable interpretations of the evidence, blithely excusing the contradictions of their chosen candidate, they activated the internal reward circuits in their brains and experienced a rush of pleasurable emotion. Self-delusion, in other words, felt really good. Partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones." This flawed thought process plays a crucial role in our lives. Partisans are convinced that they are rational- and the other side is irrational- but actually, all of us are rationalizers. They can prove this all the time. Politically active Republicans, involved and informed, by large margins, got basic facts wrong about things like the direction of the deficit under Clinton. People assimilate facts that agree with what they already think and reject the rest. "Voters think they are thinking, but what they're really doing is inventing facts or ignoring facts so that they can rationalize decisions they've already made." The world is edited to fit the ideology. At this point, rationality actually becomes a liability, because our prefrontal cortex is just a filter, allowing us to justify practically any belie
BY10 More than 1 year ago
In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer provides logical reasoning behind the illogical and sometimes life-saving decisions we tend to make on an everyday basis. Lehrer provides reasoning behind decisions people have made in events ranging from landing an out of control plane, to buying one product in a supermarket over the other. Lehrer refers to several scenarios, and with years of research, explains the choices made by individuals involved. In one chapter, Lehrer explains how people are more likely to take a gamble if someone tells you there is a 50% chance of winning, rather than if someone explains that there is a 50% chance of loosing. Another scenario referred to Wag Dodge, a firefighter who overcame emotion in a dangerous situation, in order to save his teammates and his self from a wall of fire. Lehrer explains the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which, in this case, was able to control emotion. This book is filled with situations and scenarios such as this. In each situation, Lehrer analyzes and dissects the scenario, explaining what physical parts of the body provide the incentive to do what each individual did. If your looking for a good book to get lost in, How we Decide doesn't really have the compelling sense of Lord of the rings. However, if you are interested in the reasoning and logic behind peoples choices, and if you are interested in understanding the human persona, How we decide is for you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting information and great examples to illustrate the points. The brief summary chapter seems like a last-minute addition, so don't look for any incredible concluding insights. But overall, the book is both well done and recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must read for anyone deeply interested in psychology and/ or cognitive neuroscience. A compelling, organized, and strongly written book to inform readers of what is really going on inside your head while making decisions. A good first read for anyone even remotely interested, yet at the same time an excellent read for anyone already familiar with such a topic. Fascinating, captivating, and mind-blowing.
Lachesis More than 1 year ago
This book addresses memory in a way that is both extremely interesting and highly informative. The examples--even the footnotes-- were intriguing and enlightening. This is the book to show that learning can be enjoyable--for anyone! The organization was also impressive; it moved from topic to topic in a logical manner, addressing items independently and then recapitulating. I adored it!
Jenny_econb00k More than 1 year ago
This book was really informative....I loved the circumstances Lehrer gave to prove his point that there are two parts that are involved in decision-making. I chose this book to read for my economics class and I highly reccomend it.
Compassionate-Nexialist More than 1 year ago
Lehrer summarizes the latest information about how humans decide, with particular emphasis on the pros and cons of relying on logical, conscious information-based decisionmaking as opposed to reliance on "gut" instinct. He provides, in a summary chapter, clear sensible guidelines to help us decide when to depend on which. He enlivens his presentations with gripping illustrations of occasions when people have dealt with critical decisionmaking dilemmas, such as the crisis facing a commercial airline pilot when, high above the rocky mountains, with his, his crewmates', and his passengers' lives hinging on his decisions, he must deal with catastrophic equipment failure. This is a book I would urge on anyone who suffers from abulia, or who would like to deal with life's conundrums as though he were a Vulcan.
cygnoir on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Entertaining, informative, and educational. (note to self to write more when life calms down)
takoyaki7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was just the right mix of information and entertainment to make it a fun read. However, I agree with some of the other reviewers that the author sacrifices scientific rigor in order to make the content accessible.The one thing I really like is that the author creates descriptive and engaging analogies to describe what is going on in the brain (i.e. the brain is like the cockpit of an airplane, with humans and computers catching each other's mistakes; the brain is like a group of newspaper editors debating over which presidential candidate to endorse, etc.). I wish all science textbooks contained analogies like these.
Lizabelle9 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Love to think about how the brain thinks? You'll enjoy this book with great stories and thought-provoking ideas.
cameling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a good attempt at explaining why we decide to do the things we do, and how some people seem to be able to make the right decisions and how some people don't. It covered the scientific research in terms that non-medical people can understand without oversimplifying. What I found most interesting were the examples of individuals who managed to conquer the fear of crashing a plane or being burnt by a raging fire, to think of a way to save themselves and at times, people with them. What I didn't enjoy about the book were the descriptions of scientific experiments on monkeys. It was factually presented, but they still made me cringe and I found myself muttering that the scientists should conduct the same brain experiments on their own families instead of innocent monkeys. I understand why they did it, but I still didn't like reading about it.I'm wondering though, if knowing how I make decisions, will now allow me to consciously change the way I think before I make major decisions or even some minor ones.
tgraettinger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have mixed feelings about this volume. On one hand, there were sections where I was really enjoying the text and making some notes for myself. On the other, there were yawning chasms of text that seemed formulaic and hardly new. I also had to contend with consecutive chapters that seemed to contradict one another (don't listen to your rational, prefrontal cortex - no wait, do listen). And maybe that was a central point, but I began begging the author to throw me a bone and put some semblance of a framework around all of the studies and examples. Eventually, he did a little of that in the last chapter - giving me a handful of guidelines for how to think about thinking and making decisions.The book is very readable, and there is more than a kernel of interesting information here. But overall I still find it lacking in the "make sense of it all" department.
mmadamslibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great, entertaining, not too scholarly book on how humans think- using rational thought and emotion. The science was related to real life experiences- like a pilot making a split second decision on how to land a disabled plane- how quarterbacks decide who to throw too- how gamblers become addicted- all in engaging style
xlsg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Found this in the "fast reads" section of the library right after listening to the Moral of the Story show on CBC ideas, which also discussed parts of the brain involved in making moral decisions. There is one chapter on that in this book. The book simplifies brain science, and if I may further oversimplify, there are basically two ways to evaluate the world and then make decisions: rationally, and emotionally. But despite many centuries of honoring the rational and denigrating the emotional sides, making decisions entirely using the rational parts of your brain is often a terrible idea. I really like a number of quotes and analogies in this book, and being exposed to new ideas and research: "Anyone can become angry - that is easy," Aristotle wrote. "But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way -- that is not easy." That requires some thought.Dacher Keltner, talking about how people with power who become socially isolated: "The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially appropriate behavior. You become very impulsive and insensitive, which is a bad combination."On the importance of dissenting opinions and ideas (in decision-making) he quotes Alfred P Sloan, then chairman of General Motors, adjourning a board meeting soon after it began: "Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here... Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about."Unfortunately (but perhaps realistically given the nature of the science) there is only a bit of concrete help in this book on how to make better decisions. Highly recommended to non-fiction readers.
dele2451 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very interesting explanation of the biological process that humans/primate brains use to arrive at large and small everyday decisions. Lehrer does an admirable job of incorporating a lot of scientific research into an enjoyable and easy to digest book. He methodically debunks the longstanding assumption that decisions based primarily on emotion are inherently bad and uses a wealth of real world accounts to illustrate the concepts he is presenting. You definitely don't have to be a scientist or mental health professional to benefit and appreciate this book--a definite recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"How We Decide" is a great non-fiction book that explains the process of decision making. Jonah Lehrer grabs the reader's attention by engaging them into the idea of using the tools of neuroscience to teach them about how making decisions is a blend of feeling and emotion. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys learning about the logic of sports or wanting to know how the mind works.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jonah Lehrer paints a vivid and clear picture on how the decision making process is made up in the brain by using scenarios from any category to help you understand what the mind goes through. He does a great job guiding the reader by using the latest tools of neuroscience and is one of the best authors that proves his knowledge about the behavior of the brain. He's also a great storyteller starting from sports to political views and makes the audience feel well informed about the text. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves to learn about the logic of sports or just wants to learn about the process of making the right decision.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
dannyg123 More than 1 year ago
To me this book was alright, it had a lot of information.  it simply states a bunch of facts and little stories. it was a little confusing for me.  If you are a person who really wants to know more about how people make decisions in life, then i recommend you read this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After hearing Jonah Lehrer a lot on the RadioLab podcast (which I recommend if you liked this book), I thought I'd read the book, and I found it very informative! He explains difficult scientific concepts in an easy to understand way that actually makes it interesting. Even if you didn't like science class, this book makes those ideas relevant and digestible. If you're looking for something stimulating, this will make you sound smart at parties!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As someone that is not well versed in pschoanalysis, I found this book extremely enlightening. I find myself referencing this book and discussion points on a regular basis, both professionally and personally.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How We Decide was written by Jonah Lehrer . He has written for The New Yorker , the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. How We Decide is a book on psychology and neurology. I think this book’s intended audience from high school aged people and up. The book is intended for the reader to think and understand the way his or her brain breaks down decisions. The title of this book is to the point because what it says is what you’re going to read about. I liked the way the book looks, reads, feels and opens. There are many likeable character in the book including Tom Brady and how he makes quick and precise decisions to lead his team to victory. The theme of this book is how your brain make decision in life. How We Decides writing style includes scientific wording. The main idea of this book is to help the reader think about how they make their own decisions. Main points of the book include many real life situations of people’s important decisions. I recommend the book to reader who wants to discover the way their brain makes decisions. I liked the way it explained the characters in good detail. Some of the words in the book are hard understand but that is the only bad thing about this book. The book really makes the reader think of his or her decisions and how they could have improved
AnnaLouise43 More than 1 year ago
I have never really sat and contemplated how people make decisions in everyday life. This book is one of a great contemplation, and deep inner thought. This is a no-fiction book that states cold true facts that Lehrer takes and makes the reader really relate to it by the stories he tells. The book is intended for a older, more mature audience. The purpose of this book is to show the reader how you make decisions (big, and small) in everyday life. The People that Lehrer mentions in the book seem to be somewhat easy to relate to because of the decisions they made in their life. He tells stories of great triumph and defeat, and the causes of them because the decisions they made. He tells stories of life and death situations or things that are so simple, like picking between a fruit cup or chocolate cake. Stories of how to land a falling plane, and how to escape a charging forest fire. Stories of deciding between amounts of money and receiving small rewards. This book makes you think about things that you would have never thought about in a million years. It’s cool to think that why your thinking about your prefrontal cortex your actually using it. It informs you about things you use to do simple tasks that you never would have even thought or know about. This is a complex writing, personally because of all the different parts of the brain Lehrer mentions and that you have to keep remembering them throughout the book. This book about thinking and the answers to why your thinking, ends up making you think more. I had to read this book for a summer reading assignment and personally it seemed a little over a ninth grader’s head and reading ability. The book was unusual because some parts were slower then others, and some stories were more interesting. Someone who is interested in learning about the anatomy of the brain, and what it does would really enjoy this book. Someone who enjoys reading less non-fiction and more fantasy would not enjoy a book like this. All in all this book is for a more complex mature realistic audience.