Monday, March 16, 2009

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer, writer for Seed Magazine, wrote a follow-up to his book Proust Was A Neuroscientist with a book about decision-making. It is written in a style you would find familiar if you've read Malcolm Gladwell -- anecdotes from exotic and seemingly diametric scenarios to illustrate common universal principles and wisdoms. Unlike Gladwell, Lehrer has a bent towards practical knowledge. The last chapter of his book How We Decide provides a practical set of guidelines on how to apply what he's learned about the prefrontal cortex and dopamine neurons to the way we make everyday decisions.

1. Simple Problems Require Reason
Contrary to popular thought, the more complex a problem, the less we should apply painstaking reason to it. Our prefrontal cortex can only handle 4 to 9 different factors at once, and beyond that we get confused and can be distracted by variables that aren't important. For simple problems like selecting a vegetable peeler, reasoning things out is simple enough for our conscious logic to handle and can help us avoid pitfalls our emotional intelligence makes, like loss aversion where we overvalue potential losses.

2. Novel Problems Require Reason
Our unconscious emotional intelligence is like a supercomputer, able to juggle seemingly limitless variables and find patterns amid complex situations. However, the dopamine receptors of this part of our mind can only learn from experience -- if we have no experience our intuitions cannot be trusted because we have none. In novel situations where we know we haven't encountered the situation before, it is better to ignore our emotional reactions and reason it out. Even if our conscious reason is limited in complex situations, it will still do better than a gut reaction to a problem the gut doesn't know what to do with.

3. Embrace Uncertainty
One of the bigger pitfalls we make when making decisions is rushing towards the comfort of certainty - it leads us to make brash decisions, intellectualize our way to a conclusion that is actually an unverified theory, and ignore facts that conflict with our predefined view of the world. Becoming more comfortable with ambiguity and complexity in our thoughts and feelings allows us to listen more openly to contrary facts and opinions, which makes us able to make better decisions. When a decision is complex and makes you uneasy, try to buy time when possible and give the problem time to percolate.

4. You Know More Than You Know
You can think of your unconscious mind as an opaque supercomputer, and your conscious reasoning as a pocket calculator. The supercomputer is able to tackle anything from how to throw a curveball to complex life decisions, but it depends on experience to learn and its decisions are made opaquely - you don't know how the decision is made, you just feel an urge or twinge of fear that tells you what you should do. The pocket calculator is slower and more limited, but the one thing it can do is doublecheck the supercomputer, which is handy in novel or simple situations. But when you are in a situation where you've spent countless hours practicing and training, you should trust your supercomputer to make a better real-time decision than your pocket calculator. In situations where you have expertise and lots of experience, go with your gut. If you want to tweak your performance in a situation, influence yourself in general terms like "play musically" or "go smoothly", rather than in terms of specific action, to continue to utilize your body's emotional knowledge.

5. Think About Thinking.
Lehrer emphasizes this as the single most important principle to take home. What allows is to improve our decision-making is being able to go back and consider not only the decision, but the methodology behind the decision. Look at past decisions and note if they were made emotionally or rationally, and which worked better in what situations. Become a Student of Error, and start thinking of errors as learning tools rather than things to be avoided at all cost or discarded. When we take this attitude, we learn to make better decisions over time as we increasingly maximize the mental tools we have.