How We Decide

I just finished reading How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.  It’s a pretty quick read since the chapters are chock full of interesting stories and studies explaining different aspects of how our brain works.  I definitely recommend it.

He begins with a nail-biting story about an airplane pilot having to make a snap decision, the result of which determines whether the passengers live or die.  The pilot made the right decision and, after the simulation was paused, he asked to try it again so he could see how things would work out if he had gone with the other option.  This story helped introduce the difference between rational (logical) thinking and emotional thinking.  In a split-second decision, you don’t have time to weigh options.  How is it that we can make these decisions correctly?

Lehrer goes into detail about how the emotional part of your brain excels at detecting patterns and learning routines (like the term “muscle memory”).  On the contrary, the rational part of your brain is more developed for unique situations — new problems that need a clever solution.  Learning to use these two very different assets is not so simple, though.  Rational thinking isn’t always best, since you can be overwhelmed with too many variables.  In complex problems, it’s actually better to use your emotional thoughts to make a decision.  In the end, Lehrer gives examples of how we work best when we learn to use both methods of thinking.  The key is to recognize the “argument” within the brain and use each side for its strength.  His interview with a world-class poker player (who also happens to be a particle physicist) reveals how there are times to be rational and calculate the odds of a winning hand, but then there are times to “go with your gut”, when the art of bluffing completely changes a game based on statistics.

Lehrer ends the book with some discussion about Cockpit Resource Management (CRM).  At NASA, we call this Space Flight Resource Management (SFRM), but it’s basically the same thing.  While there is ultimately one person making all the critical decisions,  everyone on the team is encouraged and expected to voice their opinion based on the data they have available.  Because one person could be focused on one solution, a potentially wrong solution, and using their rational thinking to defend their emotional decision, this system allows for others who see things differently to provide a dissenting opinion.  As a whole, the team has a more objective approach.

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NASA ExtraVehicular Activity (EVA) Flight Controller and Instructor, House DJ, Strength & Fitness Training

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