How we decide?

Just finished reading “How we decide?“, a fine book by Jonah Lehrer

A lot of good stuff in this book…My summary below:

  • Interesting information about the role of automatic nervous system and emotions in controlling human responses to events. It turns out the role of emotions is pretty pivotal in helping us make decisions and in reducing the time it takes to decide. Emotions provide pre-processed chunks of wisdom (I am copyrighting this :-)) and value judgements that obviate the need for a time-consuming and sometimes impossible top-down analysis.
  • Even though emotions are critical, they are not infallible. There are a number of cases when emotions can lead to wrong decisions. E.g. Just think of people voting for Bush because he is guy who one would like to have beer with or people claiming that being anti-torture is the same as being pro-terrorists or people making irrational statements like fight terrorists in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them in the US.
  • Humans are different from other animals because in addition to the emotions we have a powerful pre-frontal cortex that allows us to examine and at times control our emotions. In the book there are a lot of astonishing examples of imagination and creativity shown by people under duress. These people were able to subjugate their emotions in tough situations and come up with solutions that were not prescribed.
  • While the pre-frontal cortex is very powerful, it also is not infallible. The books lists a lot of examples when over-thinking a situations can interfere with the natural emotional response and can result in “choking”. Also by over-thinking we can at times get distracted by irrelevant or marginally-relevant things and end up making wrong decisions.
  • It turns out that our emotional machine is a freaking amazing pattern matching machine…It has a keen knack (based on pre-processed chunks of wisdom) to cut to the chase and quickly focus on the important stuff. The books lists a lot of great examples, studies and experiments that highlight different aspects of the brain.
  • Expectations are key to how our emotional brain works. No wonder they stress so much on managing people’s expectations in business schools.
  • Our emotional brain cannot handle randomness or the freaking amazing pattern matching machine cannot be turned off. Try seeing a list of random number one after the other. Now observe that even though you know that the numbers you are looking at are random, your emotional brain would try to find a pattern and predict the next number. One a new number comes up, again the emotional brain would try to fit that into some patterns and predict again…
    I suspect this inability to handle randomness is a big reason for the popularity of religion. A few weeks back I was having a conversation with a buddy of mine who has become fairly religious. He pointed out a number of coincidences. “These coincidences are signal from god and proof that god exists”, he concluded. I proposed that maybe these signals might be all random events and that he might just be selecting the events that fit into his theory. His response to me pointing out our brain’s inability to handle randomness – but you know god created the brain too (and he wasn’t smiling) – won him the debate.
    Another example of our inability to handle randomness is all these theories about stock market that rely on the shape and direction of the stock chart. Again I suspect people are coming up with these theories like market bottom, symmetrical triangles etc. because of the underlying urge of the emotional brain.

All in all, its one hell of a book. I highly recommend it. Also check out author’s blog for the latest updates on the subject.


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