3 excellent books about how people make decisions

On the recommendation of a Twitter friend I recently read (or, rather, listened to the audio editions of) three excellent books about how people make decisions:

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

All three contain countless nuggets of recent scientific insight into behavioral economics, or why people and markets behave as we do, as explained by three very cogent thinkers. All three focused on defining the abilities, strengths and weaknesses of different brain areas; how human impulses mesh and are sorted and acted on; predictable biases of both “rational” and “emotional” sorts; and, what we can do to avoid—and manipulate—biases and errors. Interestingly, all three authors acknowledged the increasing difficulty academics are having in drawing sharp lines between “rational” and “emotional” behavior when confronted with contemporary knowledge about brain function, but all three attempted to draw distinctions between “rational” and “emotional” decisions nonetheless—with varying degrees of success.

Playing poker
Playing poker well involves combining “rational” and “emotional” decisions and knowing when to do which.

The book I enjoyed the most was Jonah Lehrer’s, which I could oversimplify by describing as “neuroscience discovers B.F. Skinner” because of his focus on learned behavior. But perhaps that’s because Lehrer’s approach best fit my personal preconceptions about behavior—and the fact that B.F. Skinner was still working at the psych department where I received my undergraduate degree in psychology way back when I was in school.

Ariely’s book is premised on the idea that traditional economic theory is full of crap when it comes to human behavior because of economists’ bizarre assumption that people behave “rationally” with respect to economic decisions. But this failing of traditional economics was already obvious as far as I’m concerned, so Ariely’s attitude that he was discovering this for the first time in each chapter became a bit tedious, while his preoccupation with promoting his own research—and somewhat over-the-top conclusions about the implications of his research—took away from my enjoyment of his book.

Some intriguing examples of how decisions are made that were examined by one or more of the authors include:

  • Dopamine supplements that are given to people with Parkinsons disease to give them better control over their own bodies’ movements frequently develop a counterintuitive side effect: a powerful gambling addiction. The addiction ceases when the dopamine treatments end. This example (among many others) points to the significance of dopamine and the brain’s wiring in decision making—and the fine balance of the system.
  • In a blind taste test of jam on sale at supermarkets, jams which had received low ratings in a taste test received higher ratings when tasters were simultaneously asked to explain why they gave the rating they did. This demonstrates the influence of second-guessing over “gut-level” decisions, and raises questions about when one mode might be preferable to the other.
  • A commercial airline pilot experienced the total failure of the hydraulic systems normally needed to steer his plane, and had to make a series of rapid, counterintuitive decisions, sometimes defying his own instincts, to manage an emergency landing. Another pilot experienced an apparent landing gear malfunction and crashed after using up all of the aircraft’s fuel without solving the problem—although it turned out the landing gear was fine, it was just a warning light failure. These scenarios amplify the importance of choosing when to “trust your instincts” or “follow the standard procedure” versus choosing to think outside the box.
  • An MIT physicist who is now working on Higgs Boson research started gambling professionally as a young man because his mathematical prowess gave him a somewhat unusual ability to “count cards”. Over time he became one of the best poker players in the world because he learned to consciously make the choice between playing the odds and trusting his gut, and to switch back and forth between these modes as the situation requires.
  • Doctors are officially discouraged from using MRI data to treat bad backs because they have difficulty ignoring, and restraining themselves from trying to treat, “abnormalities” they find which aren’t actually causing any problems for their patients, because such “treatment” frequently made their patients worse.

I highly recommend all three books, and particularly the Lehrer book, for inspiration when communicating with others and as a challenge to your own assumptions about yourself, especially in marketing and leadership situations. Ultimately they may help you understand, predict, and—with luck—choose the best mode (intuitive or mindful) for particular decisions—a tall order given the difficulty that highly trained experts such as doctors and commercial pilots sometimes have doing the same.

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