We all like to think of ourselves as rational beings, fully in charge of the choices we make. To that end, we put a lot of thought into choosing our homes, our cars, and which movie to see. Those of us who are aware of the psychological truth that our emotions actually make the decision while our logical mind creates supporting arguments may try harder to rely on logic. In How We Decide, author Jonah Lehrer explains that our attempts may be fruitless, and besides - too much thought could be the worst way to go about making the really important choices.
Lehrer cites the case of Elliot, a bright and successful young man who lost the ability to feel emotions after the removal of a brain tumor from his cortex, which resides near the frontal lobe of the brain. In the process, Elliot lost his ability to experience emotions. Even though Elliot’s IQ and memory were unaffected, he was no longer able to make even the simplest decisions. Without emotional preferences, Elliot had to depend entirely on logic for things like choosing where to eat lunch. He could spend hours just weighing the endless variables – location, price, quality of service, and so forth. “When we are cut off from our feelings,” Lehrer explains, “the most banal decisions become impossible. A brain that can’t feel can’t make up its mind.”
This lack of emotional input doesn’t just make for a frustrating dinner date; it could actually put Elliot in extreme danger. Time and time again, people who make split-second choices in crisis situations rely on emotional simply because there is no time to analyze the situation logically. Lehrer refers to a number of such cases, including an airplane pilot faced with unprecedented system failure and athletes who make game-winning moves in the blink of an eye. No doubt everyone who reads this book will also be reminded of a similar occurrence in their own lives.
It seems that dopamine, the feel-good chemical in our brains, is essential to keeping us safe as well as happy; it can recognize smart choices based on its experience and steer us away from trouble, i.e. things that don’t make us feel good. This “intelligent intuition” contributes to our ability to learn from our mistakes, which many psychologists and educators view as the best method for learning.
Through anecdote after anecdote, Lehrer explores the power of emotional decision-making and explains the science behind provocative examples of people who have literally saved lives by following crazy, untested, counterintuitive strategies suggested by the dopamine rush. A section devoted to The Moral Mind is particularly gripping and even a little disturbing. Here Lehrer explains how ordinary people are turned into killers, and how psychopaths are able to commit cruel and brutal acts without remorse. I found it amusing to learn how we choose which political candidate to vote for, and even more amusing to read about our denial of how we make that choice.
Author Jonah Lehrer isn’t yet 30 years old, but he has solid credentials and experience in his field. A Rhodes Scholar, Lehrer describes himself as “pathologically indecisive.” That may be so, but his decision to write How We Decide was certainly a good one. Full of information about what makes us tick, the writing is effortlessly entertaining. This is one of those books that should be read by everyone, then read again at regular intervals. Yes, it is that important.