How We Decide: A book review by Bob Morris

How We Decide
Jonah Lehrer
Houghton Mifflin Company (2009)

In the Introduction after sharing an experience aboard a simulated flight landing at Tokyo Narita International Airport, Lehrer observes: “In the end, the difference between landing my plane in one piece and my dying in a fiery crash came down to a single decision made in the panicked moments after the engine fire…This book is about how we make decisions. It’s about airline pilots, NFL quarterbacks, television directors, poker players, professional investors, and serial killers…[Ever since the ancient Greeks, assumptions about decision making have revolved around a single theme: humans are ration.] There’s only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: It’s not how the brain works…We can look inside the brain and see how humans think: the black box has been broken open. It turns out we weren’t designed to be rational creatures…Whenever someone makes a decision, the brain is awash in feeling, driven by its inexplicable passions. Even when a person tries to be reasonable and restrained, these emotional impulses secretly influence judgment…Knowing how the mind [i.e. `a powerful biological machine’] works is useful knowledge, since it shows us how to get the most out of the machine. But the brain doesn’t exist in a vacuum; all decisions are made in the context of the real world.”

In the Coda, Lehrer re-visits the approach into the Tokyo airport that, we now realize, serves as the central metaphor in his book. “When the onboard computers and pilots properly interact, it’s an ideal model for decision-making. The rational brain (the pilot) and the emotional brain (the cockpit computers) exist in perfect equilibrium, each system focusing on those areas in which it has a comparative advantage. The reason planes are so safe, areas in which it has a competitive advantage. The reason planes are so safe, even though both the pilot and the autopilot are fallible, is that both systems are constantly working to correct each other. Mistakes are fixed before they spiral out of control.” The safe landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River on January 15th offers a more recent example of what Lehrer calls “perfect equilibrium” between Captain Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger and the computers aboard the Airbus A320.

Credit Lehrer with a brilliant achievement: Enabling his readers to make better decisions by helping them to “see” themselves as they really are by carefully examining that is inside the “black box of the human brain.” Only by doing so can we “honestly assess our flaws and talents, our strengths and shortcomings. For the first time [Lehrer claims], such a vision is possible. We finally have tools that can piece the mystery of the mind, revealing the intricate machinery that shapes our behavior. Now we need to put this knowledge.” I am unqualified to comment on his claim that what he offers enables the aforementioned “vision” for the first time. However, he has certainly increased both my awareness and my understanding of what may be in my own “black box.”


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