How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

9 – Plato, as usual, was there first. He liked to imagine the mind as a chariot pulled by two horses. The rational brain, he said, is the charioteer; it holds the reins and decides where the horses run. If the horses get out of control, the charioteer just needs to take out his whip and reassert authority. One of the horses is well bred and well behaved, but even the best charioteer has dif­ficulty controlling the other horse.

18 – Emotion and motivation share the same Latin root, movere, which means “to move.”

51 – But Robertie didn’t become a world champion just by playing a lot of backgammon. “It’s not the quantity of practice, it’s the quality,” he says. According to Robertie, the most effective way to get better is to focus on your mistakes. In other words, you need to consciously consider the errors being internalized by your dopamine neurons… He knows that self-criticism is the secret to self-improvement; negative feedback is the best kind.

51 – The physicist Niels Bohr once defined an expert as “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very nar­row field.”

54 – Although we tend to think of experts as being weighed down by information, their intelligence dependent on a vast amount of explicit knowledge, experts are actually profoundly intuitive. When an expert evaluates a situa­tion, he doesn’t systematically compare all the available options or consciously analyze the relevant information. He doesn’t rely on elaborate spreadsheets or long lists of pros and cons. Instead, the expert naturally depends on the emotions generated by his dopamine neurons.

70 – The world is more random than we can imagine. That’s what our emotions can’t understand.

107 – According to de Martino, “People who are more rational don’t perceive emotion less, they just regulate it better.” How do we regulate our emotions? The answer is surpris­ingly simple: by thinking about them. The prefrontal cortex al­ lows each of us to contemplate his or her own mind, a talent psychologists call metacognition. We know when we are angry; every emotional state comes with self-awareness attached, so that an individual can try to figure out why he’s feeling what he’s feeling. If the particular feeling makes no sense—if the amygdala is simply responding to a loss frame, for example—then it can be discounted. The prefrontal cortex can deliberately choose to ignore the emotional brain.

128 – But when you encounter a problem you’ve never experienced before, when your dopamine neurons have no idea what to do, it’s es­sential that you try to tune out your feelings. Pilots call such a state “deliberate calm,” because staying calm in high-pressure situations requires conscious effort.

172 – Neuroscience can now see the substrate of moral decisions, and there’s nothing rational about it. “Moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment,” writes Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate . . . Moral arguments are much the same: Two peo­ple feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other.”

179 – During World War II, for example, U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall undertook a survey of thousands of American troops right after they’d been in combat. His shocking conclusion was that less than 20 percent actually shot at the enemy, even when under attack. “It is fear of killing,” Marshall wrote, “rather than fear of being killed, that is the most common cause of battle fail­ure in the individual.” When soldiers were forced to confront the possibility of directly harming other human beings—this is a personal moral decision—they were literally incapacitated by their emotions. “At the most vital point of battle,” Marshall wrote, “the soldier becomes a conscientious objector.”

188 – According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our minds can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. And why we donate thousands of dollars to help a single African war orphan featured on the cover of a magazine but ignore widespread genocides in Rwanda and Darfur. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

217 – The only way to counteract the bias for certainty is to encour­age some inner dissonance. We must force ourselves to think about the information we don’t want to think about, to pay at­tention to the data that disturbs our entrenched beliefs. When we start censoring our minds, turning off those brain areas that contradict our assumptions, we end up ignoring relevant evi­dence.

218 – …when making decisions, actively resist the urge to suppress the argument. In­ stead, take the time to listen to what all the different brain areas have to say. Good decisions rarely emerge from a false consen­ sus. Alfred P. Sloan, the chairman of General Motors during its heyday, once adjourned a board meeting soon after it began. “Gentlemen,” Sloan said, “I take it we are all in complete agree­ ment on the decision here . . . Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”


2 thoughts on “How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer”

  1. not sure where it fits into the chronology of books, but i’ve read The Decisive Moment by the forementioned author and it was a revelation to me. The difficulty for me in extracting practical useful application lies in my imprecise fine-tuning of interpreting and understanding the emotions.


  2. actually, another meaning for emotion is ‘to disturb’ (from its latin root emovere).

    and boy, am i disturbed.


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