Jonah Lehrer and Decisions and etc.

by Weston Cutter

            Does everyone do that thing in which, when you’re reading about some ‘average’ or ‘normal’ type of function (thinking, heart rate, ability not to be duped by commercials), you just presume you’re in the extraordinary/excellent/above-average category? Is this just me? Maybe it’s just me, but when I read, for instance, about the average amount of energy people use to heat their homes, I think I use less than that, and when I read about how much television people usually watch, I think I don’t watch that much.

            All of which may be totally awful to admit, but here’s the thing: Jonah Lehrer’s new book How We Decide just about broke me in half re: feeling exclusive and separate from the study at hand. It’s a brutal book in that way: everybody‘s implicated here (except for those who have serious neurological issues). Lehrer, in the promotional stuff that came with the book, implicated himself from the start, too, said the book stemmed from the wasted minutes he spent in the cereal aisle deciding between flavors of Cheerios.

            No, no: the book is not simply about making decisions regarding flavors of cereal (though it’s not as if a book like that’d be unhelpful), but about all sorts of decisions, great and small. There’s something fascinating on just about every page in here, though most fascinating is how, through reading the book, you end up amazed at your own brain in both good and bad ways. Let’s take a simple example: there was a study in which subjects took part in an auction of, for instance, boxes of nice chocolate and French wine. The subjects were all more or less similar; what differentiated them was that, immediately preceding the bidding, each subject was asked to write the last two digits of her/his social security numbers.

            Can you see it coming?

            Maybe the nicest part of the book is that it reinforces certain ideas most of us have probably had. The idea of the ‘zone’ athletes or artists or whomever get into seems to be supported by research. Also supported is the notion that turning the conscious, needling, weighing brain off for a little bit is actually good in terms of making decisions. Again, let’s get concrete: There was a study in which subjects were asked to choose between cars to purchase. First, the subjects were given four pieces of information about each vehicle (mileage, safety ranking, etc.). Given four pieces of info to weight, the subjects all did well choosing the ‘right’ or ‘best’ vehicle. However, later in the study, subjects were again asked to choose among cars, but were given like four times as much info—fifteen bits of info per car or something (I can’t remember the specifics, and I just scanned the book twice and couldn’t find the page). When would you guess the subjects made decisions better: when they were asked to consciously and directly weigh the bits of info about each car, or when they were given the chance to take a half-hour walk before coming to any conclusion?

            Up above, about the auction and the social security numbers? Those with bigger numbers in the last two places of their social security numbers were willing to bid more for the products. Think of that for a second: Does that mean that if you’re in the grocery store and you write the number 20 on a piece of paper that you’ll be less likely to overpay for stuff? And if you write 100 on a piece of paper, you’ll likely spend more?

            That’s the screwiest part of this book, in the best way: for all the amazing advances we’ve made in the last however many years of brain research, we know so, so little. Stuff that’s so large and weird you can’t even really wrap your head around it: if someone’s brain is damaged in such a way that he’s rendered incapable of feeling emotion, he’s unable to make decisions (!!!!). That thing above, about going for a walk before making a decision with tons of variables? Science is actually nailing down intuition.

            It’s a rigorous, devastating book, and it’s incredibly fun if wildly disconcerting (simply because, if you play along for a second, you stop and consider that yr own brain’s the thing functioning to allow you to understand the words you’re reading, at which point the meta-ness of reading about yr own brain and decisions can be, um, dizzying). It’s also Mr. Lehrer’s second book (Proust Was a Neuroscientist was his first), and if you’re not jealous of this guy, it’s because you haven’t read his stuff (or read about him: Rhodes scholar, editor for Seed magazine, etc.). I totally admit that there are like fifteen great books being released this month (and like ten of them this week), but Lehrer’s is absolutely one of the best of the bunch.