Several years ago, I used to listen to hours of podcasts every week while sitting in an office creating employee schedules for Universal Studios. I especially loved podcasts involving books, authors and science. Although I have no idea which podcast I was listen to when I heard author Jonah Lehrer interviewed for his book, How We Decide, I remember hearing it made me immediately order his book from Amazon. I bought it and it has sat on my to-be-read shelf until I plucked it out last week when I was in the mood for non-fiction.
Lehrer's How We Decide is a look at how the brain functions in the decision making process. He delves into which part of the brain takes over during certain types of decisions, particularly decisions that involve a flood of information.
The book is part an analytical look at the science of decision making and part user manual. Lehrer provides concrete examples and sound reasoning as to which situations we should tune out or seek excess information. Lehrer explains how our brains can only hold a certain amount of information and sometimes an excess of options can hinder our ability to make the right choice. Sometime the right choice is going with your emotional or gut feeling, even if you can't readily explain why you feel that it's the right choice.
Some of the case studies in the book are completely fascinating. In particular, Lehrer discusses patients with Parkinson's Disease who when on a specific medication, thirteen percent will develop a compulsive gambling disorder. I'm not going to give away anymore, as the case study begs to be read!
Another study that was less shocking, but I feel very pertinent involved fifth graders who were given a test. After the test, half the kids were praised for "being smart" and the other half were praised for "working hard". The kids were then given an option between taking two additional tests. One would be much harder, at an advanced level and the other would be at their grade level. Most of the kids praised for working hard, decided to try the more challenging test and those praised for their intelligence, picked the easier one.
The chapter featuring the fifth graders goes on to discuss a lack of self confidence and the problem with perception in our society. People want to be viewed an innately intelligent or talented, rather than someone who has to work hard. However, our brains are wired to learn from mistakes. Making mistakes is part of the learning process and when we grow from them, it's a good thing. Growing from mistakes actually creates intuition and makes us become experts on subjects. It gives us the powerful ability to make snap decisions.
The abundance of information can sideline anyone, including doctors. Lehrer writes about the influence of MRI technology in creating a surge of back surgeries. Doctors were given MRI results from patients that revealed terrible spine and disc problems. However, many of these patients were not complaining of back problems or pain. The surgeries were being recommended from the MRI results, rather than listening to the patient. The New England Medical Journal recommended that doctors skip ordering MRI's for back problems, unless the patient is complaining.
The MRI results reveal too much information, show disc problems that are likely common and age related, rather than something needing a surgery. My aunt has had several back surgeries in the last few years and although I know that she is in a lot of pain, this chapter made me reflect on the necessity of all of the invasive surgeries, especially as her problems still exist.
Lehrer's book reminds me of that supplemental book that you would have in a college course. The "fun" read assigned alongside the primary text book. It's engaging and entertaining, but also densely packed with information. It's a book about thinking that will make you think, not a light summer read. It has so much information, that it begs to be read more than once and has many good take-away lessons.
I definitely benefitted from How We Decide and I will take a pause the next time I'm confronted with a big decision. Lehrer's book taught me that the most important component of a big decision is knowing the best way to approach it.