How We Decide
Posted on 2010-06-21 13:05:00
Tags: reviews books
Bookwise, I've been on a neuroscience kick lately - they feel a lot like self-help books (which I have a soft spot for, wanting to improve myself) but with science and studies to back them up!
My latest read is How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, affectionately known (at least to me) as "The Ice Cream Book" since it has pictures of different flavored ice cream cones on the front.
For a long time, people thought rationality and reason were what separated us from the animals, and that was what we used to decide pretty much everything. It turns out that is very, very wrong. We make emotional decisions all the time, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. If you're skilled in a particular area, making a decision based on how you feel is usually a good idea. (an example: Tom Brady doesn't have time to consciously decide whom to throw to, so he glances at each receiver and gets a "gut feeling")
The trick is knowing when to use emotion and when to use reason. One of the best examples (the author gives a lot of interesting examples ala Malcolm Gladwell) is Michael Binger, who won third place at the 2006 World Series of Poker. He's played poker for long enough that after playing at a table for a little while, he can glance at the other players and instinctively know how to play the hand (whether to be aggressive or not). Actually, this part of the book reminded me of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. (which I haven't actually read) But Binger also uses reason to avoid making big mistakes right after losing a hand - it's easy to get upset and your emotions can easily lead you astray.
Another good example was a study known as the Iowa gambling task. (great name, no?) The setup is that the subject is given four (virtual) decks of cards with different amounts of money on them and asked to maximize their money. Two decks are "good" (many more good cards than bad) and the other two are "bad". At first subjects pick more or less randomly, trying to figure out which decks are best, and after about 50 draws people generally stick with the good decks, although it takes around 80 draws before they can explain why. However, after about 10 draws people start getting emotional reactions - they get nervous when they're about to pick from the bad decks! People with a dysfunction of the orbitofrontal cortex (which is responsible for emotional decision-making) don't get the nervous reaction, and never figure out which decks are good.
One example I found amusing was choosing a strawberry jam. Some college students were given four unmarked containers of jam and asked to pick which was best - their choices lined up reasonably well with the reviews in Consumer Reports. (correlation of .55) However, when a different set of students were asked to choose the best and explain why, they preferred the worst jam to the best one! (correlation of .11) The theory is that when we have to justify our decisions, our rational brain kicks in and picks something to rank them on, like a chunky texture. But maybe the texture doesn't really affect how good the jam is - it just sounds like it should.
There are lots of fascinating examples in the book, and he concludes with a few principles on making decisions:
- For simple problems (like choosing a can opener), use reason.
- For novel problems (unfamiliar situations), also use reason.
- Embrace uncertainty - being certain about a conclusion can easily blind you to new contradictory evidence.
- You know more than you know - the "emotional brain" is much better at solving problems with many different variables, like choosing furniture or a car.
- Think about thinking - be aware of whether you're choosing based on reason or emotions; emotions can be great at certain types of problems but they're easily fooled when it comes to others.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the book - I've read it twice already! It's available for borrowing if you're interested.
Comment from quijax:
They talked about this on Radiolab, with Jonah Lehrer no less! There was a different study where they gave away posters to college students, either abstract art or inspirational kittens. When the students had to explain their choices, they chose the kittens. When they followed up with the students six months later, the ones who didn't have to explain and chose the art were the only ones who were still happy with their posters.
Comment from gregstoll:
Yeah! That was another good one :-)
Comment from djedi:
Can't wait to read the book. I've seen a few studies supporting this stuff before; it sounds like an interesting book. I bet your experience was colored emotionally though by the ice cream on the cover :P
Comment from gregstoll:
That would be my emotional brain reacting :-)
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