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“How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide breaks down decision making into a very compelling argument that contradicts the cultural perceptions of an “emotional” or “irrational” individual being incapable of making decisions. Instead he breaks down how emotions inform logical thinking and decision-making as critically as the rational brain.

“Even when we think we know nothing, our brains know something. That’s what our feelings are trying to tell us.” p.48

Probably one of the most high pressure examples Lehrer uses involves a lieutenant during the Persian Gulf War who has moments to decide whether the blip on the radar is an enemy missile or a plane full of supplies headed for his battleship. The information obtained from the radar leaves the lieutenant with no identifiable information as to which the aircraft holds, however based on a “bad feeling” and seconds to decide, he fires at the plane: lo and behold the plane was aircraft carrying missile. After much psychological testing on the lieutenant it is discovered that the “bad feeling” he experienced was not subjective, but based on a subtle difference in the appearance of the blip on the radar; had it been a supply plane for his troops it would have appeared on the radar barely a second before it had appeared for the enemy’s plane.

These moments where our brain understands before it can articulate it to our consciousness happen more often than we would think. Lehrer uses a series of brain chemistry experiments and examples to talk about how decisions are neither subjective feelings nor completely utilitarian decisions, but rather are informed by subtleties to generate one’s overall decision and perspective. Our brain responds to and reacts before we can consciously recognize what it is reacting to at times. Feelings that we have are often our bodies processing and then our brains chemically reacting to a situation or event. In this way Lehrer justifies the interconnectivity of emotion and reason as one in the same.

These ideas are compelling to me as someone who aims to create interactive pieces of work. It calls into question what is intuitive for a user experience. What subtleties can be implied in a piece of work that can be creative, but that a user can intuitively understand and adapt to? Pushing the envelope of design seems to be the marriage of technical familiarity that the brain can understand and a visual and technical creativity that is seductive and practical. For someone with my experience, this book calls brings to light a conversation about design, user experience, and the interwoven aspect of functionality and emotion.

642 comments to “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer

  • Excellent book picking. I feel compeled to read it. So many times a day we make decisions based on “non thinking” or better “non rationalizing” thoughts. Moments where our brain understands before it can articulate.

    Why we instantly like or dislike something or someone. Rationality can not answer all our questions in designing experiences, living life itself. A model of life purely based on rationality is more likely to drive to irrationality as well.

  • Nancy

    Interesting post. So.. I wonder what do you mean by intuitive? Do you think the lieutenant’s feeling was some ESP, or God, or whatever.. or driven by experience… so much experience that we can react without thinking. And yet, that’s a kind of thinking, no?
    In Atul Gawande’s book Complications, there’s an essay on expertise.. why going to a surgeon who’s performed 100’s of even a simple operation is better than going to a novice b/c they are so practiced, can almost do the procedure by rote–that they are more likely to notice anomalies. I think Malcolm Gladwell has a book on this, too. Probably easier to just read the New Yorker article..his idea are easily understood. maybe it’s Blink, The power of thinking without thinking.
    Also the Feeling of What Happens by Damasio…is fascinating and on a similar tack to this.
    thanks for the post.

  • Alexandra "Diracles"

    I agree with your response in that the information provided by Lehrer gives us a great amount of insight in terms of how a user emotionally responds to design and interactivity. As I was reading your post I also felt like this reading also speaks to why we as people create the types of systems we do. Why is one person interested in creating a war game and another a interactive door knob. What is it that draws us as creators to investigate specific areas? Obviously our upbringings, education, and influences etc, make up a large part of what we are interested in inventing / creating, but after reading your post I also believe it must have something to do with how each of our unique emotional responses (the millions we have each day) congeal to form what we are seriously passionate about excavating.

  • kmb445

    Nancy: I think that our reactions to things are not always fully analyzed by our conscious mind and that as a result we experience a thought process something in the vein of “THIS > THAT” for no apparent or conscious reason. However our past experience subconsciously relays a message to our conscious self that is undeciphered. This ties into exactly what you’re saying with the surgeon example, however I tend to believe that the more experience you have the less the subconscious decisions are made. With experience and trial and error on a consistent basis a lot of the subconscious decisions we make surface as conscious thoughts and realizations.

    Alexandra: Interesting thoughts… I’m not sure I understand why you believe that our interests and passions are tied so closely with our subconscious thoughts and decisions, but I am certainly interested in hearing. If you could further explain that I’d love to read!

  • Erin Smith

    I’m currently reading another of Lehrer’s works – “Imagine” – the little book that ruined his previously spotless reputation.

    It sounds like “How we Decide” (which I haven’t read) and “Imagine” share a similar effortlessness in describing and condensing aspects of neuroscience with disparate examples, and presenting them in a way that’s enjoyable for readers with limited scientific knowledge in these fields. I’ll gladly admit that I’m really enjoying “Imagine” for many of the same reasons argued here –

    I feel that any work that can open me up to new ideas, or change my understanding about the way I work is valuable, regardless of where the information came from, or how the t’s were crossed. Although, that is my point of view as a reader – I do also think Wired is justified in letting him go when it comes to questions about falsifying quotes.

  • kmb445

    Interesting… I didn’t realize that Lehrer had a history of plagiarism!

    I totally agree with you! If you’re talented, there’s no reason to plagiarize, and taking shortcuts when you’ve already attained a level of success such as writing for Wired is a risk that only a fool would take!

  • aml742

    Decision making is one of the hardest thing to do. Every step, every gesture, every single trip we undertake. Everything we are is based on our decision-making abilities.

    For a long time, I was told I had to intellectually process every decision I was about to make. I was told that the best way to ensure I would take the right decision was to reason it. To build a blank space in my mind, draw a line in the middle, write the pros and the cons and compare them. As time passed, I realized this way of thinking was not mine. But inherited from my social context.

    Occidental cultures are mostly organized and orientated around reason. Around thinking. They promote a self-reflexion based on the rationalization of reality. Meaning transforming the inputs of our 5 senses into facts that can be quantified and analyzed. Encouraging us to bjectify who we are so The Reason would guide us. A reason that would be external, that would be seperated from our emotions which can be misleading.

    I do agree with Lehrer’s vision of decision-making. It is a combination of emotions and reason. And most of the time, if we can read them properly, our emotions lead us to the best decision to take. We should build our analytic capacities so they free us from our environment not so it dictates who we are. Meaning, instead of using them to construct a framework that enclose our mind into a set of rules, we should be able to use those analytic capacities to make us read what we feel at every moment. The Zen philosophy compares the serene human to a samouraï: being connected to our emotional self every instant, every moment. Being able to read live what we feel when we feel it.
    Using the reason to decode our emotions, not to deny them for the sake of The Reason.

    There is no Reason, no shared reason. Reason is an individualized concept and is linked to who every person is. We are too often stuck into a personal context that imprison our personality into a fake self. Made of external rules we were told to follow.

    The only reason we can have is to be spontaneously ourself. No matter who this person is. It sounds simple, but it is in fact the hardest thing to do.

  • Nancy

    There’s another interesting book related to this called The Wisdom Paradox… looking at why as you get older and your memory fades, and it gets harder to learn new things ( yes, it’s true) you’re also better at a lot of things, and are credited with wisdom. The reason the author (NYU professor Elkhonon Goldberg) says is that in our decades of experience we have developed acuity at recognizing patterns. “As we age, our analytical ability degrades due to physical aging of the brain, but we continue to thrive because the many “patterns” accreted over our lifetime help us to quickly recognize new data and categorize it. The adult brain’s extensively-developed repertoire of patterns/data funnels is an analogy for “wisdom” which intuitively reaches insightful conclusions without much analysis.”
    I’ve gotten to the forgetting part, I’ll let you know when wisdom kicks in!

  • Yuliya Parshina

    Thank you for talking about this book — I am looking forward to reading it. Don Norman’s “Emotional Design” talks about this type of subconscious, emotion-driven decision-making that seems to be the topic of How We Decide. But Don Norman also talks a lot about the faulty mechanisms of our memory and the resulting decisions. Because of the way we recall information, the comparisons to previous situations upon which we base our split-moment decisions can be very flawed, and with the decision-making process happening subconsciously, it’s difficult to analyze the results. Because of this, the lieutenant anecdote described above really troubles me. Without knowing the full details, it sounds like he might as well have made a very serious mistake, and then we’d be reading his name in a very different kind of text.

  • Xinran

    I am a bad decision maker myself. I believe it is called Choice Phobia Disorder. It always makes me nervous when I am in a restaurant that I have not been before, staring at the menu and the waitor waiting for me to order, trying to decide waht to eat. So I always tend to go to a familiar place to eat and order the same dish. This also happens to me on less trivial things, which sometimes drives not only me but people around me crazy. I guess there lacks a bridge from my brain to the actual decision-making organism. Or the given information does not build such bridge for me?

    It’s interesting to associate the decision making to user experience design. I’m willing to read this book to create something that won’t make myself feel nervous about decision.

  • jsp507

    Thanks for your response to the book Kristen. I have always been interested in what it is that informs a humans ability to navigate life. Some people are good at life and some are total shit. What is it about the people that are good at life? Does it come down to good decisions, bad decisions, a combination of both? The more aware and honest you are the more likely you will make good decisions. Yet we are subject to a culture of impulsive consumerism and it’s fucking everywhere. How important in the scheme of life are our roles as consumers? Do our consumeristic decision making habits spill over into other decision making habits?

    I suppose that how one navigates life is what philosophers spend their time ranting about over and over again. What is equally interesting is the question of how we are persuaded. Check out this frontline special-
    The following is a quote from the show:
    ‘Consumers are driven by unconscious impulses’
    As designers do we design for unconscious impulses or is it more wise to get people to think!? How do we get them to stop and think? It is difficult. How do we approach this design challenge?

    A few years back I had a personal revelation; after a late night bar conversation I realized that I wasn’t able to differentiate between emotions and feelings. I had no language for explaining the distinction. My concept of feelings and emotions are mushed together. It felt odd that I couldn’t explain the difference nor could the people in my small circle. Feelings tell us how to live, emotions tell us what we like and dislike. Feelings are low-key but sustainable, emotions are intense but temporary. I’ve read that the great leaders throughout time were amazing leaders because they were so in touch with how to navigate life based on a strong sense of knowing feeling and for this people were attracted to them.