How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

28 Dec

After following Jonah’s very readable blog for a while I decided I had to read his book. His blog introduced the latest neuroscience and psychological research in a very clear and digestible form.

That Lehrer has been embroiled in controversy for recycling his own work, and using unreferenced quotes from others is well known, however that of course does not detract from the message of his book in any way.

It’s an easy read, that is not too in depth and covers a lot of ideas about how the mind works that I’ve read before. While it’s not as incisive and informative as his blog, it is still useful, and reinforced ideas in a practical way.

He starts by describing how we use intuition (the examples of a quarterback & chess were used). Calculating faster than a computer, we are able to subconsciously make a good decision, if we have trained ourselves enough. We’ll “feel” that something is right without knowing why, or even needing to know.

However it’s important to know when we can use this intuition: if it’s an area you know well, where you have experience, then let the intuition lead. However if the decision is in a area in which you have had little practice, then don’t rely on your subconscious – think it through consciously.

Our subconscious training can be tripped up. Choking is well known, especially in sports, for example golf. If someone who is expert in an area consciously tries to figure out the technicality of what they’re doing, say understanding the position of their shoulder or the angle of their elbow, then they can easily lose the ability to fluidly use their body. Rather they must think in more general terms, such as a smooth golf swing.

There’s another way we can decide whether it’s best to use our intuition or our conscious mind to figure something out: if some problem has about 5 variables then we should use our conscious mind (the frontal cortex), however if there are a lot more variables, we should soak them all in, focus on something completely unrelated for a few minutes, then come back and make a decision – in that case the subconscious is good at sorting through the key facts.

He points out that the brain is an advanced pattern matching machine. This is very powerful when we want to figure out how things work, or make quick decisions, but it can lead to problems – recognising a face in clouds is a simple example. Also superstitions, seeing ghosts, etc. are faults with the system.

He talks about how morals are subconscious and are justified post-hoc, and are often not often logical.

He covers what Pinker would call the functional mind, i.e. that different bits of the brain will argue with each other, and once they’ve made a decision, present the result to the conscious part of the brain. He advises becoming aware of the argument, and embracing uncertainty until a good decision is found.

To be honest, having read a lot of stuff in this subject area I found this a really basic book, but if you are new to reading about neuroscience and how the mind works, it’s an easy-to-read introduction that you could get through in a few quick hours.

The best conclusion from this book is that we can understand how we work, use our inbuilt skills when they are appropriate, and train ourselves to make better decisions.

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