April 2014
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Review: The Decisive Moment, Jonah Lehrer

What happens when we make a choice?  How do we decide which brand of jam we want in the supermarket, or what to do when we’re piloting a crashing plane and have no instructions on how to save the day?  Jonah Lehrer takes a look at how we make decisions.  He examines which parts of our brains do what and how we fall into traps based on how our brains are constructed.  Using clear examples and fascinating, well-documented facts, Lehrer examines how we can use all of our instincts as well as our rational minds to make the best choices for ourselves.

This book was totally and completely fascinating.  I didn’t really know what to expect from it except that I’d like to know more about how my brain works.  Lehrer seriously delivers on his promise.  His book is not too heavy on the science and I’m sure real brain function is a lot more complicated, but he distilled it down into a series of examples and explanations that I could understand and relate to what he was saying.  I kept exclaiming over how true various parts were and had to read them aloud to my husband so he could get them too.  I also made him read it right after I did because I just found it all so fascinating.

Let me take an example that relates directly to me.  In one of the chapters, Lehrer discusses how children are taught and how the education system has it somewhat backwards.  Kids are praised for their intelligence, not for their efforts.  He cites studies that show that children who are praised for working hard do consistently work hard and take on tougher challenges, while kids who are praised for being smart are so afraid of failing and proving that praise wrong that they choose to do easier tasks in order to maintain their projection of intelligence.  Lehrer says that this is wrong because our brain learns by making mistakes – screw up once or twice, and you’ve learned something.  If you don’t screw up, you don’t improve.  This is so true because all my life, I’d been praised for my intelligence, and once my intelligence didn’t cut it, I felt like a failure, just as he describes.  Working hard solved the problem, but I didn’t think that I had to – after all, I was smart.  Mistakes are important and that’s not something we learn.

He also explains why gambling is so addictive, why Deal or No Deal is actually a fascinating insight into how the brain works, why political pundits are often wrong (and how some of them manage to be correct), and even helps to explain the credit card debt problem, as apparently our brains have a smaller sense of loss when using plastic than when using cash, so the reward of buying something seems proportionally more important.  The endnotes provide plenty of references to the studies he cites, and he looks at real life examples of decision makers who rely on both instinct (their emotional brain) and conscious thought to make choices.  He examines when each are important and emphasizes the importance of taking time out to mull on important decisions, as your unconscious brain will be busily figuring out the problem for you.

Mostly, Lehrer encourages us to think, to question our beliefs, understand when we make mistakes, and try to consider everything from all angles.  Sometimes it’s best to rely on your feelings, like when you’re choosing jam or playing football, and sometimes it’s best to consider why you feel that way, like when you’re choosing a political party or faced with an out of control forest fire.  Overall, The Decisive Moment was compelling reading.  I learned so much and I can’t imagine anyone not gaining from this book.

This title is known as How We Decide in the USA. I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from the publisher.

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