For The Someday Book

Book Review: How We Decide

Posted on: December 22, 2013

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, 302 pp.

How we decideI read this on an airplane, and it was great non-fiction airplane material. Not too light to fly through, not so heavy it required silence to concentrate. It was another impulse buy at the YMCA used book sale.

How We Decide is mostly pop science and pop psychology, with a hint of business and self-improvement thrown in. Lehrer examines the latest neuroscience studies about what parts of the brain are active in decision-making, and the difference between acting based on feelings or on rational thought. He also carefully examines which kinds of decisions are most successful when made with one part of the brain or the other, or both. Lehrer’s book bears a resemblance to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, and even cites some of the same neuroscience studies. However, he pursues a different question. Gladwell tracks the value of snap judgments. Lehrer looks at both gut reactions and careful analytic decisions, and the differences between them.

Lehrer takes apart the classic distinction between decisions based on emotion and those based on reason. The West has always privileged reason over emotion. However, modern research has proven that all decisions require some element of both. We cannot make decisions–even simple ones–if the emotional part of our brain is shut down. Lehrer writes, “Our emotions are deeply empirical.” Dopamine neurons teach our brain to respond based on past experiences–they program our emotional reactions based on all our prior decisions and their effects, right or wrong, which means that sometimes our emotions know better than our minds. Although Lehrer does not explore this territory, I could not help but imagine all the ways this same brain research explains the deep patterns formed by our childhood experiences. Our family life in the early years sets up patterns and expectations that forever mark our emotional reactions to the world.

However, emotional decisions are not always the best ones. Lehrer explores those decisions that are best made from emotional responses, those best made from reason, and those best made by a combination of the two. He explores loss aversion (bad is stronger than good, a loss hurts worse than a gain feels good), executive control (the ability to analyze your emotions and impulses), overthinking (analyzing too much can lead to a poor decision), and morality (altruism, generosity and kindness). He has a range of examples from quarterbacks in the pocket to soap opera casting directors to gamblers to military members watching radar for missile attacks. In the end, he concludes that the brain functions best as an argument–that emotion and reason must contest with one another, and it is the contest that yields the best decisions.

The book was fascinating, and I can imagine using many of the neuroscience studies and their insights–as well as Lehrer’s examples–as sermon illustrations for a variety of scriptures.

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3 Responses to "Book Review: How We Decide"

nice to see someone reading Lehrer. Hope he can emerge at some point from silly plagiarism issue.

Thanks for the comment–I hadn’t heard of the scandal and had to Google it. That’s what I get for picking up random books at the YMCA sale. Too bad, because I enjoyed the book and thought he had a strong gift for writing science in an accessible and interesting way.

It was a goofy mistake. Who needs to make up Bob Dylan quotes? I still think he’s a good researcher and accessible writer, but he seems to have been exiled from the publishing community. I hope he can find a way back.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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