Irrational exuberance, morose over-thinking and everything in between

Thursday Sep 3, 2009

A book review on How We Decide


Jonah Lehrer is very impressive. I started reading this fascinating book on the new science of decision making, turned to the back cover to check out the author’s biography and found a twenty something in a grey hoodie with a remarkable resume. Lehrer writes an interesting story that weaves together dramatic, real life scenarios like fleeing a wildfire, to the winning moves of a Super bowl quarterback, all of which required no fault decision making. These scenarios are then explained through a mix of philosophy, history, psychology experiments and the relatively new and burgeoning field of neuroscience. The book reads a lot like Malcom Gladwell’s best seller “Blink” in narrative style, but based on a scientific not just an anecdotal foundation. Is this the new formula for pop science and business writing that authors are following? If so any innovations would be warmly welcomed (at least by me). By the end of the book you not only know a bit about the difference between Plato’s view of the mind, that rational thinking is superior, and is what sets us apart from animals. And Aristotle, his pupil, who said the brain’s role, is to manage emotions and master the interplay between rational thinking and instinctive drive. Interestingly, Lehrer lands on a similar perspective to Aristotle, except his arguments are supported by fMRI brain scans, and Aristotle presumably relied on rhetoric alone.

What used to refer to somewhat simplistically as ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ thinking we can now more accurately (and impressively) attribute to the limbic system- the more primitive, instinctive part of the brain, and the more recently evolved prefrontal cortex that controls rational thinking. Both are equally important but best applied to different situations.

In Direct response the framing of the debate is often posed as the inevitable conflict between rational testing optimization of messaging and emotional engagement and creativity leading to action. Lehrer does not write about this explicitly, but the next movement in direct is to get over the creativity emotional engagement vs. rational hard sell opposition and realize that both may play a role, but best applied to different decision making scenarios. How we inevitably frame the options available is also touched upon. In human decision making losses loom much larger than gains which is why most of us choose ground beef which is 80% lean rather than 10% fat. ??!

The book also talks about the difference between two typologies in psychology, the Maximizers, who always want to make the best choice possible but are invariably left feeling regretful and doubtful if they have made the right choice. On the other hand the Satisfyers who seem to be invariably happy with the choices they make. While much direct especially in financial services has addressed the Maximizer mentality, in today’s prevailing economic environment we are more in tune with the times speaking to the Satisfyers.

This area is new, exciting and we will no doubt be hearing more about it in the new era of Direct.

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer

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