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HOW WE DECIDE by Jonah Lehrer


by Jonah Lehrer

Pub Date: Feb. 9th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-618-62011-1
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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 the same 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.