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Book Review

The process of decision-making

Tom Brady led the Patriots to victory in the 2002 Super Bowl. Tom Brady led the Patriots to victory in the 2002 Super Bowl. (jim davis/Globe staff/file 2002)
By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2009
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In this entertaining, insightful book that combines neuroscience with in-depth anecdotes about decision-making by shoppers, NFL quarterbacks, professional poker players, and others, Jonah Lehrer argues that the best decisions are not only rational but blend reason and feeling.

Lehrer's thesis is that we need to know when to be rational, when to be emotional, and when it's best to blend the two: "Sometimes we need to reason through our options and carefully analyze the possibilities. And sometimes we need to listen to our emotions. The secret is knowing when to use these different styles of thought."

Lehrer opens the book with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady driving down the field in the final moments of the Super Bowl against the Rams in 2002. As Lehrer makes clear, Brady's job is a mysterious combination of strict planning and split-second improvisation amidst chaos: "I don't know how I know where to pass," says QB Brady, "There are no firm rules. You just feel like you're going to the right place. . . . And that's where I throw it."

For an experienced quarterback or a professional golfer, someone who's made decisions unconsciously for years, the true danger comes from too much rational thought. Lehrer cites one experiment where expert golfers were instructed to think about the mechanics of their putting stoke as they putted. Their performance was significantly worse when thinking than when not thinking. For a great golfer, writes Lehrer, "the brain already knows what to do. It automatically computes the slope of the green, settles on the best putting angle, and decides how hard to hit the ball." For those with deep experience or expertise, too much rationality inhibits success.

The same holds true for issues of morality, notes Lehrer, a regular contributor to the Globe's Ideas section. Humans don't use their rational brains to decide what is the right thing to do in any situation. Feelings come first and rationality later. After describing a number of experiments supporting this view, Lehrer summarizes that "the emotional brain generates the verdict. It determines what is wrong or right . . . the rational brain, on the other hand, explains the verdict."

Yet emotion can be dangerous too, can close our eyes to alternatives. We need to use our rational brains to avoid the "certainty trap," which results in closed-mindedness and blind self-justifications after a decision has been made. "[W]hen making decisions," writes Lehrer, "actively resist the urge to suppress the argument. Instead, take the time to listen to what all the different brain areas have to say." Emotion is certainly an important piece of information, Lehrer believes, but it cannot be the only factor in making a decision. Open-mindedness is difficult, but critical.

Lehrer's final, and best, chapter looks at the game of poker, as he describes how poker pro and mathematical genius Michael Binger uses a blend of rationality and intuition to reach the final table at the World Series of Poker. As Lehrer makes clear, Binger's unique power to calculate the odds of a poker hand were important to his success, but Binger's poker career really took off only after he'd developed his intuition, the ability to "read" his opponents. "Binger came to understand that different situations required different modes of thought. Sometimes he had to play the odds. And sometimes he had to trust his gut" and play the opponent.

Lehrer's exhaustively researched and skillfully crafted book will appeal to anyone who wants to improve their decision-making skills. He recommends using your rational brain for resolving simple problems. "Complex problems, on the other hand, require the processing powers of the emotional brain . . . listen to your feelings. They know more than you do."

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

HOW WE DECIDE By Jonah Lehrer

Houghton Mifflin, 288 pp., $25

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