Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How We Decide - a Review

I read a lot. Not every book that I read deserves a review. Some books are just too light, to uneventful, too prosaic to bother adding my opinion to the public records of the Internet. Jonah Lehrer's book, How We Decide, is not one of those.

How We Decide is an succinct examination of how brain structure and chemistry impact the decisions that we make. This book has changed the way I think about my own mind, and it has made me highly aware of my decision-making process. A few weeks ago I wrote about decision-making as it applied to food in my life. This is only one aspect of how Lehrer's book has affected my life.

I am a consummate procrastinator. I wait until the last minute to do just about everything. This has, in recent years, caused me no small amount of stress and aggravation. For years I have tried to break the ingrained habits created by years of putting things off. I have been mostly unsuccessful. In the past few weeks, however, and much of it due to Lehrer's book, I have begun to take stock of the decisions that I make and the reasons behind them. A particular section of How We Decide deals with the brain's love of instant rewards. Thus, Lehrer argues, we turn to those things that give us "immediate" benefit. Here is the example he used:

A psychologist gathered together some children. Each child was placed in a room, and provided a single marshmallow. The psychologist then told the children that they could eat the marshmallow now, but if they waited for him to return before doing so, they would get a second one. Now, who doesn't want two marshmallows. Most of the children, however, failed to wait. They were unable to control their impulses, those brain desires that demand immediate satisfaction.

I realized, after reading this part of the book, that I was living a life demanding immediate satisfaction instead of waiting for my second marshmallow. I want the greater rewards. I want the things that will be more satisfying. Putting off work, so that I can watch a funny video on YouTube means that I get instant gratification, but it is short lived. Soon I must contend with the fact that my work is not done, and by that time I have even less of a chance to do it. I am no longer putting off my work, or my projects because something fun and trivial raises its head. I will focus on my decisions. I will decide, not my impulses.

Of course, this is only a small part of what Lehrer argues, but he can tell you much better than I can. I give his book How We Decide my highest praise, and I think everyone who has an interest in how the human mind works should give this book a go.

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