The Road Not Taken: Two Books Look at How Humans Make Choices

Reviewed by Peter D. Kramer
Sunday, February 15, 2009


By Jonah Lehrer | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 302 pp. $25


How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average

By Joseph T. Hallinan | Broadway. 304 pp. $24.95

Imagine yourself in the place of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, the pilot of US Airways flight 1549. A "double bird strike" has disabled your engines. You've asked an air controller to let you return to LaGuardia. You can head to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, or you can try to glide over the George Washington Bridge and ditch your Airbus A320 in the Hudson River. How do you choose?

In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer, a journalist with research experience, asks neuroscience to explain the deliberative process. Looking at a similar incident in which quick thinking averted an airline disaster, he writes that the pilot "used his prefrontal cortex to manage his emotions." Lehrer elaborates: "Studies show that neurons in the prefrontal areas will fire in response to a stimulus -- such as the sight of some cockpit instrumentation -- and then keep on firing for several seconds." That extra firing allows for fresh thought: "Once this overlapping of ideas occurs, cortical cells start to form connections that have never existed before, wiring themselves into entirely new networks." The prefrontal cortex then evaluates the insight and recognizes it as a solution to the problem. You head for the Hudson, and lives are saved.

This explanation might be satisfying were it not for everything else we know about thought and feeling. For instance, Lehrer describes studies that show how "choking" at sports results from too much reasoning. Likewise, the "framing effect," in which our expectations cause us, for example, to overvalue cheap wine in expensive-looking bottles, results in errors in judgment attributable to a prefrontal cortex that's working overtime. Whole branches of psychology and economics arise from research revealing glitches in our rationality. And then there is extensive evidence that some judgments are best made on an emotional basis; many successful decisions -- in the face of this defense, toss the football there -- are made too quickly for the newer, rational part of the brain to run through every step of the analytic process.

Lehrer's method is to introduce research findings through dramatic illustrations, such as a crucial Tom Brady pass in a Super Bowl. Lehrer is prone to hyperbole -- fans of Joe Namath's 1969 New York Jets might not agree that the New England Patriot's 2002 victory over the St. Louis Rams was "the greatest upset in NFL history" -- but he's expert at both storytelling and hard science. How We Decide is always fascinating, which is not to say that the book is without problems.

Lehrer does little to integrate science's contradictory findings. As he himself demonstrates, sometimes, like a quarterback, we should rely on gut feelings; sometimes, like a pilot, we should favor reason. And both capacities, arising from millennia of animal evolution, are fallible in the face of recent innovations, like marketing and advertising. Nor does Lehrer succeed in showing that linking mind functions to brain regions will allow us to make better assessments. About a pilot's genius, we might convey as much if we said that he remained calm and relied on his training and ingenuity. It never becomes clear that neuroscience can inform our decisions better than Socrates' division of the mind into appetite, reason and spirit.

Joseph T. Hallinan, in Why We Make Mistakes, takes the alternate route, reviewing comparable material -- often the same studies Lehrer cites -- and attending only to psychology. Explaining why we prefer plonk with a Chateau Lafite label, Hallinan refers to pattern recognition, fixed associations and skewed judgment. Lehrer goes further and reports that "only one brain region seemed to respond to the price of the wine rather than the wine itself: the prefrontal cortex."

Hallinan can be informative. For example, he is convincing when he writes that, contrary to what you've been told, you'll do better if you rely on second impressions and change your answers on multiple-choice tests. But for me, these books called up a hoary anecdote about a Harvard "final club," a fraternity that stored essays as well as exams. An undergrad gets an A on a biology paper enhanced by a colorful image of a fish. Next year, another kid hands in the same paper: A. Finally, a student, thinking to avoid detection, discards the drawing, resubmits the paper and gets it back marked: "B+ -- where's the fish?"

I know that it's mostly an example of the fallacious thinking that these two books warn against -- a case of misleading "framing" in which elegant neuroscience, like a cut-glass decanter, exerts influence over a judgment about the worth of the content -- but after I read Hallinan, my mind went: "B+ -- where's the prefrontal cortex?" ยท

Peter D. Kramer's most recent book is "Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind."

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