Book Reviews

Book by Jonah Lehrer
Review by Angeline Walswick

How We Decide challenges traditional assumptions about how good decisions are made.  The book describes the brain’s rational and emotional decision-making processes, explains the pros and cons of each and provides strategies for most effectively using the different parts of our brain to make the best possible decisions.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Lehrer argues that emotional, rather than rational processes are most valuable when making complex decisions.  He suggests using the rational part of the brain to gather a large amount of information from diverse perspectives, then taking a break to allow the unconscious mind to evaluate it.  The option that is later association with the most positive feelings is likely the best choice.  Emotions are also crucial in making ethical decisions, because they allow us to consider the impact our choices will have on others.

Interestingly, the simplest choices are ones in which we should not trust our intuition.  In cases where there are a limited number of important variables, or the information can be easily quantified, we should trust the logical part of our brain.  The rational part of our brain is also where new associations are created that lead to creative solutions.
Lehrer’s writing style is both entertaining and informational.  He expertly weaves together compelling stories and accessible descriptions of scientific research and brain physiology.  For example, the drawbacks of overthinking are illustrated by the story of an opera singer with performance anxiety and by a psychology experiment in which subjects are asked to select their favorite strawberry jam. A classic experiment on primates and the techniques used by a soap opera director are used to show the importance of learning through mistakes.  The amount and variety of information presented can be a bit difficult to process, but Lehrer provides a clear  summary of the book’s main points in the last chapter.

While not written explicitly for educators, there are countless ways in which the information can be used to help advisors assist students in making personal, educational and career decisions.  For example, advisors can guide students in thinking about their thinking, seeing the value in taking on challenges and making mistakes, and further developing self-regulation.
The ideas presented may also help advisors to empathize with the difficult task facing students who are making complex decisions such as selecting a major.  Lehrer argues that simply deciphering what we like and don’t like and why is a “very difficult cognitive task” (pg. 235). Also, in order for the emotional brain and the rational brain to work most effectively together, students must have time to contemplate their decision and consider a multitude of perspectives.  Advisors and others can assist in this process by valuing uncertainly and encouraging the inner conflict that, while uncomfortable, is essential to good decisions. 

This book is recommended as a fun and informative read that may inspire advisors to think differently about how they teach students about decision-making.  Advisors who wish to have a more nuts-and-bolts overview of brain function and its practical application to the educational environment might prefer a more traditional reference book.

How We Decide.  (2009). Book by Jonah Lehrer.  Review by Angeline Walswick. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  320 pp., $14.95, (paperback) ISBN # 978-0-547-24799-1

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