How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

I watched Jonah Lehrer on the Colbert Report a few months ago, and thought he did a really good job. So, when we were offered free copies of his new book, How We Decide, I asked for one, even though it’s not my usual sort of thing.

The main point of the book is that what you think you know about thinking is wrong. Through both interesting historical anecdotes and summaries of the latest in cognitive science research, Lehrer shows that our usual decision-making process is nowhere near as rational as we would like to believe. And, moreover, that’s not such a bad thing– without contributions from the “emotional brain,” humans tend to be either paralyzed by indecision, or amoral monsters.

With its counterintuitive premise and engaging anecdotes, this book is clearly working the same vein as Malcolm Gladwell. So, why is it that I liked this book quite a bit, while Gladwell tends to annoy me? According to the book, it’s impossible to really say for sure, but I can offer some rationalizations.

The biggest reason is that I am not beset by Jonah Lehrer fanboys. If Lehrer gets to be as inescapable as Gladwell, with countless people talking about his latest book or article in that breathless “oh, what a visionary genius” tone, I’ll probably get just as sick of his work.

There’s also the fact that Lehrer mostly avoids topics that I know anything about. There’s a tiny bit of discussion of physics in the final chapter, where he talks about physicist-turned-poker-pro Michael Binger, but nothing in the chapter relies all that heavily on claims about physics, so there’s no chance for it to go wrong. He could be as mistaken about some of his claims as Gladwell is when he talks about basketball, but I have no way of knowing.

I think, though, that what ultimately makes this book more appealing to me is that there’s a certain modesty to the claims that strikes me as more scientific than the typical Gladwell article. Lehrer doesn’t ever claim, or even hint, that he or any of his subjects have the Answer to anything– he’s quite clear that what science has found is that the process of decision-making is more complicated than we think it is, and that we’re only scratching the surface. Even his ultimate recommendation– that you should spend some time thinking about how you’re thinking about things when making decisions– is a modest one.

It’s that lack of hubris (or at least perceived hubris) that makes this book work better for me than Gladwell’s stuff. I think. It might just be that this book has ice cream on the cover, and I like ice cream. Mmmmm… ice cream.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a book about cognition and decision-making, I recommend this one. It’s smart, it covers a wide range of topics, and both the science and the anecdotes are charmingly written. It’s a good, fun read, and it will also make you think. About thinking. And we could all stand to do more of that.