Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How We Decide

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Publisher

How do we make decisions? According to classic philosophy, only our rational minds can make the best decisions. However, according to Jonah Lehrer, it takes both our rational and our emotional parts of our brains to help us make the best decisions. In fact, he explains how our emotional mind helps us make big decisions in life while our rational mind best helps us in small decision making. This is quite the opposite from what I had thought! What Lehrer explains is that parts of our brains that handle emotions have learned from experience and pick up on small cues of which we have no conscious realization. When we make big decisions based on how we feel, we are more happy with our choices. That doesn't mean we shouldn't get all the facts but it does mean that we don't need to line up the facts and decide based upon our reasoning. However, for smaller choices (like choosing a breakfast cereal), using all our reasoning powers is best. Although, don't make your decisions based solely on price as we tend to assume the best products cost the most!

My Personal Impressions

Lehrer's book does go into some scientific information about how the brain works and what parts help us in our daily decision-making. However, this is not a boring scientific tome. What makes this book a good (shall I dare to say exciting?) read are the stories which illustrate each of the decisions he explores. What drew me in from page one of the introduction were these stories that are well thought-out and engaging. Just as some of the best sermons have the best use of stories, How We Decide uses appropriate stories to illustrate what could easily have become a dry scientific book.

For example, the most powerful stories for me were the ones from airplane pilots. At the end of the book, Lehrer points out that airplane travel is now even safer that it was thirty years ago. This is because pilots are being trained to use their emotional parts of the brain to make decisions in the cockpit. This has come about through the use of flight simulators as well as the realization that the captain is not the all-powerful decision maker. It takes that emotional experience to make quick and right decisions in a crisis.

I was intrigued because I began thinking about some of the decisions that I have made in my own life and some decisions that I am having to make right now. How have I decided in the past? When have I allowed my emotions or feelings to influence my choices? How can I use what I have learned from this book in improving my current and future decision-making? I will take the knowledge from this book and put it to good use.

How We Decide speaks to my Christian faith in the following ways:

I admit I struggled with this part and had some realizations that were not pretty. One of the cautions that Lehrer gives is that anyone who has  a certainty (such as a rule, commandment, idea, opinion) will most likely rationalize to support that certainty, no matter how irrational that person ends up sounding. He really encourages getting opposing views and seeing things from the other side before coming to conclusions. The example he gives is from Abraham Lincoln's cabinet. Lincoln surrounded himself with persons who did not agree (as in some pro-slavery, some anti-slavery) and listened to all sides before making a decision. Although he was thought of as a weak decision-maker at the time, we can see that he actually was a stronger leader because he took all sides into consideration.

This was eye-opening for me because it made me think of the church. How many times do pastors such as myself try to find like-minded folks to serve in leadership positions? We want unity in the Body so we try to find people of the same mindset. However, if we are capable of rationalizing our own points of view, we may end up making choices that are far from God's desires. What if we purposely found people who brought different mind sets or beliefs to the table and actually listened to both sides before prayerfully making decisions? Hmmmm....something to consider.

The same is true of my own faith decisions. Whose opinions do I usually get when I am making choices? My husband, my prayer partner, my parents and my friends. While they may have an opposing view, most likely they will echo what I am already thinking. Who can I ask that would have another perspective? And will I be able to listen to their way of reasoning? In addition, am I truly capable of admitting my mistakes and learning from them?

I must add a word of caution here because the book does talk about natural selection as well as have a few disturbing images of psychopaths and experimenting with animals. However, if we take Lehrer's advice to heart, we Christians need to be reading non-Christian books in order to get the view from the other side. This will help us to make more informed decisions that are in line with God's own will, not just our own will.

Will you decide to read How We Decide?


  1. Okay, this is scary...I have listened to the majority of this book on my is very fascinating...I just suggested to a group of folks in my NonProfit seminar yesterday...From a Chrisitan perspective, I think it affirms the concept of Spiritual Recruiting....letting God "decide" who is best for a position in ministry...even if it's oppossed to our view. Good review...

  2. Thanks, Amelia! I so appreciate you distilling the wisdom from this book for us, and it goes along in part with a book I am reading entitled
    The Leader's Voice which says that in order for our communitcation to inspire action and get results we must include facts, emotions and symbols. I also read recently how we take too many issues on in church committees, hydroplaning over really important issues that need to be addressed, but because we want to be nice, they are ignored, only to bite us or others down the road. So having people with other perspectives on the comm. and taking more time will be of great help in the long run!
    Thanks again! I love your photography as well!

  3. I may have to add this to my list to read.

    I too am enjoying your photography. It make me smile :)