LehHoww 09-06-85

How We Decide



Jonah Lehrer

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, ISBN 978-0-618-62011-1


We are supposed to be logical, rational thinkers but we're not.  The mind is composed of a messy network of different areas, many related to emotion.  Sometimes feelings or intuition lead us to predictable mistakes.  Good decisions require both reason and emotion.  The real world is too complex for just one or the other.  One can develop a wealth of judgment over time.  This book tries to understand our behavior from inside the mind, which the author says is "really just a powerful biological machine."


An NFL quarterback has to make several hard decisions in a few seconds before he is crushed.  Every play is a mixture of careful planning and risky split-second improvisation.  How does he make all the decisions?  It's as if his mind is making decisions without him! 


The problem with seeing the mind as a computer is that computers don't have feelings.  We have disparaged the emotional brain.  Our reason and emotion depend on each other.


Emotions are a crucial part of the decision-making process.  A brain that can't feel can't make up its mind.  The orbital frontal cortex integrates emotions into the decisions.  It connects feelings to conscious thought.  It assesses alternatives outside conscious awareness and converts them to emotions and motivation.


In a successful soap opera, everything feels sincere, even when it is outlandish.  The director milks the drama.  He relies on instinct and 'feel' for the on-the-fly direction.  For direction and casting he depends on his emotional brain, those twinges of feeling.  Consciousness is a small part of what the brain does: much of what we 'think' is really driven by emotions.  "Reason without emotion is impotent."     


Intuition can be astonishingly insightful, even if the origins of the insights are obscure.  Brain cells communicate with one another via dopamine.  Dopamine regulates our emotions.  It is the neural currency of the mind, helping make decisions.  It reflects a huge amount of invisible analysis.  Dopamine neurons generate patterns based on experience.  When patterns are established dopamine allows the brain to predict the experience.  When it experiences the unexpected the cortex takes notice.  Nothing focuses the mind like surprise.  This is essential to decision-making.  The lessons of the past are incorporated into future decisions.


Our emotions quickly become accurate, more quickly than our reason, because of dopamine, the molecular source of our feelings.  Dopamine neurons automatically detect subtle patterns we don't notice.


Expertise is the wisdom that emerges from mistakes.  Mistakes should be cultivated and carefully investigated.  The ability to learn from mistakes is essential for education.  Experts are profoundly intuitive.


While the emotional brain is capable of astonishing wisdom it's also vulnerable to certain innate flaws, situations that cause chronic gambling or burying or choosing the wrong stocks.  When the brain is exposed to anything random, it imposes a pattern.  When a person is confronted with an uncertain situation, he doesn't logically evaluate but depends on a brief set of emotions, instincts, and mental shortcuts.  The brain skips the math.  The pain of loss is twice as potent as the pleasure of gain and thus 'loss aversion' is more powerful, a powerful habit that shapes our behavior.  Investors buy bonds because they hate to lose money, even though stocks always outperform in the long term.  Loss aversion makes us irrational.  It is an innate flaw, causing us to miscalculate risks.  Emotions can sabotage your common sense.


Paying with credit cards fundamentally changes the way we spend money.  When you pay with cash you feel the loss of the money out of your wallet.  But the credit card makes it abstract so you don't feel it.  The brain is anesthetized.  The average household owes $9000 in credit card dept.  The average is 8.5 credit cards per person.  Unless people get rid of their credit cards they won't be able to stay on sound financial footing.  It's hard to choose long term gain over positive stimulus of immediate rewards.


People who act more rationally don't perceive emotion any less, they just regulate it better.  We regulate our emotions by thinking about them.  We can choose to ignore the emotional brain.  Aristotle said we need to learn how to manage our passions.


The emotional brain is always tempted by rewarding stimuli. Even at age 4, some are better at managing emotions than others.  And there is a strong correlation between their ability to delay gratification and their performance as adults. 


The prefrontal cortex is like an orchestra conductor directing activity throughout the brain.


Sometimes rationality can lead us astray.  When you 'choke' it occurs from thinking too much, thinking about things that should be on autopilot.  Thinking interferes with automatic decisions.  There is such a thing as too much analysis.  You can cut yourself off from the wisdom of your emotions. 


The placebo effect demonstrates the ability of the prefrontal cortex to modulate even the most basic bodily signals.  It can moderate our feelings of pain but also lead us astray in making decisions.  We tend to experience what we expect - that Coke tastes better than generic cola for example - even when it's not so in reality.  Our expectations impact our experience and behavior.  We lose the capacity to differentiate and assess alternatives.  If our expectations are based on false assumptions they can be very misleading.


The brain has a spectacular inability to dismiss irrelevant information.  The sticker price on a car serves as a point of comparison, persuading us the bargain price is a good deal, even though we all know the sticker price is a fiction.  A single piece of irrelevant information can distort the reasoning process. When we have too much information we lose track of which is important.


Too much information can interfere with understanding.  Without the MRI about 90% of people with back pain get relief from bed rest within 7 weeks.  At the same time MRIs show disc irregularities that warrant surgery in a large proportion of people who have NO back pain!  And no one would do surgery on someone's back if there were no pain.  So the MRI may show a series of abnormalities in your discs that are NOT the cause of your back pain but simply a part of the aging process.  Sometimes more information can restrict thinking.  Intelligent people will make foolish decisions if you give them lots of irrelevant information. 


We have assumed that our moral decisions are a result of rational thought but logic and legality have little to do with it.  Moral decisions are a unique kind of decision.  Moral distinctions are built into the brain and don't arise from the Ten Commandments.  [Perhaps the fact that it is built into the brain is part of what it means to be created in the image of God. dlm]  When people are socially isolated they have less sympathy for the feelings of others.  They become more selfish, insensitive, and impulsive. 


Statistics don't activate our moral emotions.  Pictures do.  Looking at one suffering face is more powerful than overwhelming statistics.  The capacity for making moral decisions is innate but the right kind of experience is required for it to develop.  The development process may go awry via genetic deficiencies or child abuse.  Cruelty makes us cruel.


"We are designed to feel one another's pain…"  "Sympathy is one of humanity's most basic instincts….  Evolution has programmed us to care about one another." [I always notice the word "design" and similar terms.  'Design' seems to strongly imply foresight and intentionality, both of which are ruled out by naturalistic evolution. Dlm]


Consumers aren't always driven by careful considerations of price and utility.  Much of the calculation is outsourced to the emotional brain and the ratio of pleasure to pain.  It's like an emotional tug of war.  Retail stores manipulate this cortical setup to constantly prime the pleasure centers (by putting the most desirable and tempting items near the front of the store) and inhibit the pain centers with words like "sale" and "bargain."


Voters tend to assimilate only the facts that confirm what they already believe.  Other information is ignored.  The prefrontal cortex becomes an information filter.  We suffer from self-imposed ignorance.  It feels good to be certain, thus we trick ourselves into being sure.  To counteract the bias for certainty we must force ourselves to think about the information we want to  ignore, that disturbs our entrenched beliefs. 


Lincoln filled his cabinet with people of diverse ideologies, encouraged vigorous debate, and was able to tolerate much dissent.  Resist the urge to suppress the argument in your mind. 


While reason and feeling are both essential, each is best suited for specific tasks.  Simple problems require reason.   But it's not always easy to tell which decisions are simple.  Selecting the best jam from 200+ varieties is not simple! 


For important decisions about complex items (like which couch to purchase), think less and let your emotions decide. 


Novel problems require reason.  If it's a genuinely new situation, without precedent, emotions can't help. 


Embrace uncertainty.  Extend the decision process and consider the argument going on in your head.  Entertain competing hypotheses.  Remind yourself of what you don't know.


Emotions are intelligent because they have turned mistakes into an education from which you benefit.


Bottom line:  When you make a decision, be aware of the kind of thought process required by that decision.  Study the working of your brain and the argument in your head.  It will help you avoid stupid mistakes. 



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