Thursday, December 17, 2009

How We Decide

We make thousands of decisions every day – what we want to eat or drink, whether or not to purchase a new electronic device, how to carry out our job. Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide, is a fascinating look at how we arrive at all these different decisions.

What surprised me the most was the absolutely vital role played by our emotions: “every feeling is really a summary of data, a visceral response to all of the information that can’t be accessed directly.” Our emotions help us to interpret complicated information. They serve as the link between all the information stored in our brains and our response to a new situation.

We rely on stored memory to help us decide when to swing at a baseball or when to brake. We don’t have time to consciously think through each of these actions, but instinct and emotions help us decide on the right response. In fact, if we think too much about how we swing our arm or how we steer, we’ll make mistakes.

Emotions also help us sort through complex decisions. We can rationally decide to buy a vegetable peeler as there are a limited number of factors to consider. We need emotions to help us sort through a complicated decision like buying a house, which involves many different factors – price, location, style, size, etc.

In fact, we may regret our choices if they are too rational. A research study asked students to choose a painting. The students who chose one they liked were happy with their choice. Those who were asked to provide a rational explanation for why they chose a painting often regretted their decision.

However, emotions can lead us astray as well. The mind treats losses differently than gains. We’ll respond far more positively to a proposal with a 90% chance of success than we will to one with a 10% risk of failure. It doesn’t feel like we’re spending money when we use a credit card, so we run up debts that we know we shouldn’t.

In addition, our brains will always try and impose a pattern on random acts. We start gambling, and we think we’re on a winning streak, so we keep going, even though we’re losing more and more money.

Sometimes, we don’t think enough. We rationalize decisions that we’ve already made, using rationality to justify practically any belief. For example, voters will use reason to justify their consistent, partisan voting patterns.

Lehrer recommends embracing uncertainty – identify what you don’t know as well as what you do know, and consciously examine your decision-making process.

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