Book Break: How We Decide

My latest work reading, completed just this week, was Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, an engaging and easy-to-read account of the brain science (as we currently understand it) behind our decisions. Drawing on ancient philosophy, modern psychology and neuroscience, and examples as diverse as military conflict, professional sports, gambling, and shopping, Lehrer exposes the strengths and weaknesses of our emotional and rational thought processes — and shows each to be inadequate without the other.

The book was a relatively quick read, understandable and action-packed, which is not always easy to achieve when writing about science. The stories used to illustrate key strengths or weaknesses of the ways in which we think are sometimes suspenseful, sometimes tragic, and always fascinating, and several times I saw myself in the concepts illustrated by the book: recognizing what I would do in a situation before I know why; looking for patterns where there are none; over-thinking in some cases, and making snap decisions in others that prove to be simply (and obviously) wrong. 

One of the more fascinating discussions, given the endless run-up to the 2012 elections, is the problem of confirmation bias, which stems from our own certainty and our resulting tendency to discount opposing evidence and emphasize that which supports our biases. Even among “non-biased,” so-called experts — for example, seasoned political journalists and commentators — the problem of overconfidence in one’s expertise causes their predictions about political results and world events to be worse than random chance. (The Wall Street Journal ran an article by the author explaining this in more detail.) Another had to do with a phenomenon called the anchoring effect, in which the brain stores potentially meaningful information that can unconsciously influence unrelated decisions. This was illustrated by an experiment in which participants were asked to recall the last two digits of their Social Security number, then were asked to write down the maximum amount they would pay for a variety of diverse items up for “auction” — and subjects with numbers on the higher end of the spectrum (00 to 99) recorded bids that were on average 300 times higher than those on the lower end. (This is the effect exploited by car dealers who post an inflated asking price on a car, which will invariably be reduced, but also subconsciously raises the amount you’re willing to pay.)

If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Blink, you know the type of book this is. I found The Tipping Point interesting, and Blink a bit more personally revealing and useful — this book snatches the ball from Blink and runs with it. I recommend it highly, with only one caveat: the chapter on moral decisions, I think, makes a mistake in straying from psychology and brain science to comment on religion, but only shallowly. Lehrer points out instances in which the rational parts of our brain, left to their own devices, fail in making or explaining moral judgements. Often we just “know” right from wrong. He makes no real attempt to explain this “knowing” in a scientific way, aside from a vague reference to “basic primate morality” that evolved as primates became more social creatures and became aware that causing pain in another of their species was somehow bad for both the victim and the social group in general. He then dismisses religious morality as mis-ordered: 

“Religious believers assume that God invented the moral code. It was given to Moses on Mount Sinai … But this cultural narrative gets the causality wrong. Moral emotions existed long before Moses. They are writ into the primate brain. Religion simply allows us to codify these intuitions, to translate the ethics of evolutions into a straightforward legal system.”

In addition to the laughability of a “straightforward legal system” based on Judeo-Christian religious values in this day and age, there is a bigger problem here. Lehrer is mistaken to think that the faithful believe morality was invented by God at the time of Moses — as though He were just some wise and benevolent being who showed up on the scene and tried to help Moses and the Jews out. Lehrer misses the transcendence of God, in which creation, order, love, and justice are all of a piece, and he misses the chance to discuss the concept of Natural Law, another (and perhaps better) explanation for what he calls “moral emotions…writ into the primate brain.”

Even so, this chapter and the entire book are compelling, thought-provoking, and even entertaining at times — read it if you have a minute.

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