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Don't just Blink! Instead, read a series of well-chosen, beautifully told stories of successful and unsuccessful decision practices, along with some rules of thumb for when to rely on emotions, or rigorous logic, or hold a long-term running debate in your head, or how to best mix emotions and logic when appropriate.

Since I was young, any discussion about how to make better decisions quickly turned into a debate between those who liked to follow the rules of logic and those who liked to wait until they get a good feeling about a choice. The reason that debate continued is that both sides are right, and wrong, part of the time. The good decision maker will know when to access which method . . . or to combine them . . . for the best results.

I found How We Decide to be the best introductory book I've read for helping anyone to improve decision practices, depending on the circumstances. For example:

1. When we have little time to decide, need to act, and are quite experienced, relying on our feelings will guide us to a typically high quality answer that our subconscious mind has already figured out. Try to logic that situation out, and we lose the benefit of the feeling and don't around to applying the logic properly.

2. When there are lots of variables and we have lots of time, but the decision isn't important, we can waste tremendous amounts of time comparing things until we eventually make a worse decision than if we went with our feeling-led intuition earlier on. We are particularly at risk in situations where our minds can be misled (we immediately like expensive items better than less expensive ones . . . even when they are objectively inferior, have a hard time resisting a bargain, and don't feel enough pain when we can pay with plastic).

3. When there's lots of uncertainty . . . even with keen logic applied, it's good to draw on both logic and those feelings. The combination will narrow down the choices into a more informed, higher quality choice.

4. Avoid situations where your brain will keep trying to find a pattern, making you feel good, even as your pocket is picked (such as when you play slot machines).

5. When there are only four variables to compare and it's an important decision, do all the analysis you want . . . if you have enough time.

6. Compare things first without knowing their prices (such as by tasting wine without knowing the brand). You'll make better choices and save a lot of money.

7. Get more people involved where incomplete perceptions and bias can lead to bad decisions (such as the former practice of letting airline pilots have too much authority in the cockpit during an emergency).

Jonah Lehrer also describes the latest research that explains why those conclusions are true. If you read a lot in the field, the research won't be new. If you don't read much on the subject, you'll find these studies to be interesting confirmation of the stories and suggested decision rules.

Nice job!

From what the author says in the acknowledgments, the editor did an excellent job on this book. Congratulations for suggesting many of these great stories!
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With regard to neuroscience, I am a non-scholar who has a keen interest in what the brain and mind are and how they function, and am especially interested in how decisions are made. In recent years, I have read a variety of books that have helped me to increase my knowledge in these specific areas. They include William Calvin's How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then And Now, Gerald Edelman's Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On The Matter of The Mind, Guy Claxton's Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, Howard Gardner's Five Minds for the Future, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and most recently, Torkel Klingberg's The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory. I am grateful to these and other volumes for increasing my understanding of the decision-making process while realizing that is still so much more that I need to know. Hence my interest in Jonah Lehrer's book, How We Decide.

In the Introduction after sharing an experience aboard a simulated flight landing at Tokyo Narita International Airport, Lehrer observes: "In the end, the difference between landing my plane in one piece and my dying in a fiery crash came down to a single decision made in the panicked moments after the engine fire...This book is about how we make decisions. It's about airline pilots, NFL quarterbacks, television directors, poker players, professional investors, and serial killers...[Ever since the ancient Greeks, assumptions about decision making have revolved around a single theme: humans are ration.] There's only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: It's not how the brain works...We can look inside the brain and see how humans think: the black box has been broken open. It turns out we weren't designed to be rational creatures...Whenever someone makes a decision, the brain is awash in feeling, driven by its inexplicable passions. Even when a person tries to be reasonable and restrained, these emotional impulses secretly influence judgment...Knowing how the mind [i.e. `a powerful biological machine'] works is useful knowledge, since it shows us how to get the most out of the machine. But the brain doesn't exist in a vacuum; all decisions are made in the context of the real world."

Then in the Coda, Lehrer re-visits the approach into the Tokyo airport that, we now realize, serves as the central metaphor in his book. "When the onboard computers and pilots properly interact, it's an ideal model for decision-making. The rational brain (the cockpit computers) and the emotional brain (the pilot) exist in perfect equilibrium, each system focusing on those areas in which it has a comparative advantage. The reason planes are so safe, areas in which it has a competitive advantage. The reason planes are so safe, even though both the pilot and the autopilot are fallible, is that both systems are constantly working to correct each other. Mistakes are fixed before they spiral out of control." The safe landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River on January 15th offers a more recent example of what Lehrer calls "perfect equilibrium" between Captain Chesley ("Sully") Sullenberger and the computers aboard the Airbus A320.

There are many valuable insights within Lehrer's narrative. Here are several that caught my eye, albeit quoted out of context.

"The process of thinking requires feeling, for feelings are what let us understand all the information that we can't directly comprehend. Reason without emotion is impotent." (Page 26)

"Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process." (Page 54)

"The ability to supervise itself, to exercise authority over its own decision-making process, is one of the most mysterious talents of the human brain. Such a mental maneuver is known as executive control, since thoughts are directed from the tip down, like a CEO issuing orders." (Page 116)

"As it happens, some of our most important decisions are about how to treat other people. The human being is a social animal, endowed with a brain that shapes social behavior. By understanding how the brain makes these decisions, we can gain insight into one of the most unique aspects of human nature: morality." (Page 166) Lehrer devotes all of Chapter 6, The Mortal Mind, to this important "aspect." For
example:

"At its core, moral decision-making is about sympathy. We abhor violence because we know violence hurts. We treat others fairly because we know what it feels like to be treated unfairly. We reject suffering because we can imagine what it's like to suffer. Our minds naturally bind us together, so we can't help but follow the advice of Luke: `And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Page 180)

Actually, I highlighted dozens of other passages but this review is already longer than I originally intended so I will quote no others. Because I think so highly of this book, I wanted to allow Lehrer sufficient opportunity to share at least a few of his thoughts with those who read this review. Credit him with a brilliant achievement: Enabling his readers to make better decisions by helping them to "see" themselves as they really are by carefully examining that is inside the "black box of the human brain." Only by doing so can we "honestly assess our flaws and talents, our strengths and shortcomings. For the first time [Lehrer claims], such a vision is possible. We finally have tools that can piece the mystery of the mind, revealing the intricate machinery that shapes our behavior. Now we need to put this knowledge."

I am unqualified to comment on Jonah Lehrer's claim that what he offers enables the aforementioned "vision" for the first time. However, he has certainly increased both my awareness and my understanding of what may be in my own "black box."
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on 28 October 2010
I have read so many books about how the mind works and nothing has hit the mark quite like this. Lehrer takes the dense field of neuroscience and brings it to life. Yet he does not over simplify it. Each chapter is interesting in itself but as you progress you start realising that the author is cleverly revealing more and more of the brain's complexities. Just when you think that there is no way to know how to decide, he sums it all up so clearly, showing you how to come to the best decisions in different circumstances.

Plus the book is FUN. It's packed with stories that I've been retelling to friends and clients ever since. It makes a good read as well as being incredibly illuminating.

Sure, there has been a spate of pop psychology books but this is not 'just another one'. Lehrer respects his audience by giving you the background to all his conclusions - in a really accessible way. It is only by taking you through this journey (packed with amazing analogies for a range of fields from airline pilots to firefighters) that you actually UNDERSTAND the background to why you should use different decision-making approaches in different circumstances. That is a far more powerful and long lasting approach than yet another guru just telling you their perspective - what this author writes is based on what is actually going on in your brain, and finally you understand how it all fits together.

If you're torn between logic and emotion, buy this book. Period. It's not just about decision making. You'll never look at yourself the same way again.
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on 2 March 2010
A fascinating subject but... If you are interested in American Football League or the intricacies of cardplaying, then I can recommend this book for you. Personally I found the explanatory narratives to illustrate the theory supremely disengaging. This may be because I am neither American nor male.
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on 23 April 2010
As others have noted, this book is quite good at explaining not only "how we decide," but more important, how we decide wisely or foolishly. I was particularly intrigued to discover that, over time, I'd fallen into precisely the sort of shopping behavior that studies have shown are most likely to lead to long-term satisfaction. I ponder all the factors, and then, without making a decision, browse elsewhere in the store for a few minutes. After that pause to let my subconscious mull over the decision, I almost alway reach a decision I like.

The book's chief failing is that the author doesn't pull everything together into a "How we should decide" summary. For me, all the interesting bits and pieces never seemed to come together. Sometimes he cites studies showing that following reason is the best option. Other times the research suggested that it was best to go with gut instinct. I realize that life is complex and research often contradictory, but a bit more summation would have been helpful.

--Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien: A Chronology and Commentary for The Lord of the Rings
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on 6 May 2012
I've read and continue to read many books on neuroscience and selecting to read "How We Decide" has proven invaluable. There are many good comments and reviews here - I simply wanted to add that this particular book with Jonah Lehrer's approach, presentation and superb writing skills has provided a more complete and thorough understanding of neuroscience than all the books I have read on the subject. Very Well Done!!!!
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on 23 December 2013
This isn't the kind of book I'd usually pick up, as I tend towards fiction. But it was recommended to me and, when I eventually got around to reading it, I really got a lot out of it.

What Jonah Lehrer really does well in How We Decide is make the science of decision-making accessible and relevant. I'm no scientist and, even after reading the book, I couldn't tell you which parts of the brain are involved in different parts of the process in different situations. The detailed science stuff didn't really stick. But what did stick were the stories.

Each chapter opens with a true - but usually extraordinary - story. The firefighter who survived a raging bushfire by not running, for example, or the pilot who successfully averted a potentially catastrophic disaster by doing exactly the opposite of what his instincts told him to do. There are also less remarkable (but still impressive) stories about how successful quarterbacks and poker players do what they do. By beginning each chapter in this way, Jonah Lehrer keeps the focus firmly on the real-world outcomes rather than the science. He hooks the reader in and presents an intriguing situation that we then want to know more about. Only then does he introduce the science, and throughout the explanation he returns to the original case study, keeping the science anchored in the story.

And then there are the stories we all relate to: stories about how children respond differently according to whether they are praised for effort or results, for example, or about the consumer decisions we all make every day. These are woven in - often in the context of experiments that bear out the theory he's explaining - throughout the different chapters. This allows us to make connections between the remarkable stories, the science behind them, and our own lives and the smaller-scale decisions we all make all the time.

So while I may not be able to tell you exactly what's going on in your brain as you make those various decisions, I am much more aware of my own decision-making processes and I do keep thinking back to some of the stories and situations described in How We Decide. Jonah Lehrer is a master storyteller, and for that reason this book will appeal more broadly than you might expect.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 April 2013
The basic premise of this entertaining and wide-ranging book is that if we understand the strengths and weaknesses of the brain we will spot opportunities, reduce risk and be able to improvise successfully even if things are looking very bleak.Knowing the many and various factors that influence our decision making in a given situation allows us all to be more aware of our circumstances and the elements that might reduce ability to optimize potential outcomes from a particular decision.'How We Decide' is in part a lay mans introduction to the brain and its functions ( pop -biology /psychology) and a sort of management manual of the what to do if,variety.

Drawing examples from business (sub- prime mortgages /credit card use), gambling, coping with disaster (multiple systems failure in civilian aircraft),perfecting your golf swing and a discussion of autism to name but a few, the book successfully shows how individual behavior can be influenced by the various workings of segments of the brain to good or ill. The use of all this information comes apparent in the last few pages of the book. The idea is to combine reason and emotion together. European thinking has seen Man as a duality - rationality combating feeling.Lehrer suggests there is a need to combine the two. Some decisions literally can be allowed to be 'gut instinct', others require an understanding of probability, risk and possible consequences. Such decisions have to be thought through.Even so, too much information is distracting and hard to process,so an individual needs to prioritize what information is useful and what presents a smoke screen.Gambling is a classic example of combining analysis with 'feeling' . We need to know what odds we face as a gambler but also the likely actions of our fellow gamblers when placing a bet. In doing so, we put the odds slightly more in our favour.

The most important idea of the book is that when making a decision we need to be aware of our current emotional state and therefore how our perceptions can affect the quality of decision making.Life can never be risk free and sometimes the unexpected can happen,but by being more self-aware we might make better decisions. No bad thing.

'How We Decide' is a good general read. My only criticism would be, could not more have been written on not just the 'why' but the 'how' to use this new found awareness.Otherwise, recommended.
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on 11 December 2013
This is going to sound like the writings of a troll and I apologise for it.
Probably the best book I read for the last 10 years (to be conservative).
It explained so much and filled so many gaps in my knowledge that it has become a sort of bible.

The duality between the Frontal Cortex and the more animal part of our brains
is such a revelation, it made me re-evaluate so many things... And discover
logic in what until now seemed illogical.
I have read the other critics available on this page. I can understand people
not being interested in the narrative/story telling that links the scientific
expose, but the essence of this book is so rich that it outweighs anything
else that might bother you. This is the science we should all be taught at school!
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on 8 November 2013
This is a fascinating book that takes you through the process of how we decide. The author does a great job of breaking down the subject matter and explaining it in a manner that everyone can understand, yet is still thoroughly enjoyable by scientists like myself.
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