coverLehrer, Jonah (2009) How We Decide. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Lehrer uses stories about quarterbacks, Navy radar operators, professional gamblers, managers at IKEA and airline pilots to set up the discussions about what we are learning from brain science around decision making. I found the stories too long and involved when what I wanted was the insights. Some of the points of this book in a nutshell:

  • Many decisions are made subconsciously and then we justify them (eg moral decisions)
  • Buying behavior is an argument between the part of your brain flooded with dopamine in the expectation of a reward and the prefrontal cortex which evaluates price. Scientists can view the intensity of these opposing forces and know before you do if you are going to buy.
  • The subconscious/emotional brain can be more effective at arriving at a good decision (after looking at the facts) for complex decisions you care a lot about (e.g., getting married, choosing a new sofa, changing jobs, or deciding on vacation). Distract yourself for a bit and then don’t be afraid to let your emotions decide.
  • You must guard against ‘certainty’ which makes you ignore potentially important information that doesn’t fit with your current view of the situation.
  • Regarding sustainability, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that morality is wired into our brain. Unless an individual has a mental defect, we share a moral code. Our subconscious makes a decision that something is ‘wrong’ and then we justify it. This is, of course, blasphemous for religions and those who think that the world would run amok without the Ten Commandments (or other codifications of this innate moral code). “Moral emotions existed long before Moses.” Even other primates can understand a personal moral violation as ‘me hurts you.’
  • The bad news is that we are really good at ignoring information that doesn’t fit our view of things. Drew Westin, a psychologist at Emory, exposed voters to the inconsistencies of their candidates. Voters found the inconsistencies of their own candidate much less worrisome than those of the other political party. Brain imaging shows that these people were using their prefrontal cortex to preserve their partisan certainty. Then, once they’d arrived at favorable interpretations, they got a rush of positive emotion. “Self-delusion, in other worse, felt really good.” We are all ‘rationalizers.’