Friday, February 11, 2011

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

I was a few chapters into How We Decide when I started thinking, "Haven't I read this before"?

A while back I read Malcolm Gladwell's anecdote-studded book Blink, whose thesis is that people often make far better decisions on the basis of intuition and "gut feeling" than when they carefully and consciously weigh the evidence. (And sometimes they don't -- Gladwell brings up Amadou Diallo as an example of somebody who died because men with guns followed their gut instincts when they shouldn't have.)

Jonah Lehrer, in the book's early chapters, discusses virtually the same idea. (Different anecdotes.) But his focus is different.

The fun-to-make-fun-of Gladwell made his name by packaging insights about people and society into easily digestible books and articles for the middlebrow masses. (I'm not making fun of the middlebrow masses. I belong to them.) He's a jack-of-all-trades. He writes about politics. He writes about culture. He spoke at TED about spaghetti sauce. And when he finally got lots of people pissed off at him, it was because of an article he wrote deriding Twitter's ability to make real change in the world.

Lehrer, on the other hand, specializes in minds and brains. He's got a solid background in neuroscience. He may never be famous enough to be mocked by The Onion, but he aims for the same middlebrow audience as Gladwell -- except you know that he knows his stuff. I read his blog.

Many of Lehrer's anecdotes are familiar to people who follow current developments in neuroscience and behavioral economics. My personal favorite: a university did a study where a sugar and caffeine-laden energy drink was available to students - for a price - just before the students did a battery of mental problems. One set of students bought the energy drinks at full retail price; the other set got them at a substantial discount. The exact same sugar and caffeine jolt both ways, but the students who paid full price did significantly better on the quiz than the ones who got the discount.

Another interesting finding: when test subjects (college students again) did a blind taste test of different varieties of strawberry jam, their preferences tallied closely with the preferences of the taste experts that Consumer Reports employs. That in itself is comforting news -- apparently the taste of these hifalutin' experts is not too different from that of unschooled hoi polloi like us. It got interesting, however, when another group of tasters were asked to provide reasons for why they preferred Brand A to Brand B when they assigned their ratings.

Analyzing taste sensations using language is difficult. I like food and I like going to restaurants, but I couldn't be a restaurant critic; I don't know how to talk about food. When these college students, largely unschooled in the science of flavors, were forced to justify their rankings using language, something happened. Jams that they ought to have liked plummeted. Jams that experts and ordinary college students alike had panned, were now among the most popular. These students were unable to put their instinctive reactions into language, so they reached, concocted explanations, and fooled themselves into thinking that their favorites were something other than what they were.

The final verdict? Minds are complicated. I liked one Amazon reviewer's impression: "Emotion trumps reason; or sometimes not; except when it does." It's hard to pin Lehrer down to a definite thesis statement that can be expressed in fifteen words or less, but in a way it's a source of pride. We're the species with really complex minds that contain an interplay of different forces. Uh-huh, that's us.

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