Friday, February 27, 2009

'How We Decide' by Jonah Lehrer

'How We Decide' by Jonah Lehrer

Reviewed By Gordon Marino
LA Times

Honey Nut Cheerios or regular Cheerios. The Caribbean or Hawaii. To be human is to be endlessly jostled by choice. Decisions are earnest business. How should we make them?

Philosophers such as Plato and Descartes thought it best if pure reason decided everything. The heirs of Socrates pictured the passions as intoxicants interfering with our ability to think clearly. It was not until Soren Kierkegaard that some philosophers acknowledged that there is a cognitive dimension to emotion, and later, that reason and emotion may not be entirely separate agencies. In his latest offering, "How We Decide," Jonah Lehrer explores the nexus of thought and feeling in the decision-making process.

Lehrer begins by debunking the notion that we should all make our decisions like hyper-rational Mr. Spock. Lehrer, who also wrote "Proust Was a Neuroscientist," observes that perfectly intelligent people become virtually unable to make the most trivial decisions when their capacity for feelings are flattened as a result of brain disease or trauma. This is no surprise. Emotions inject our mental representations with direction and intensity.

Lehrer maintains that there are many cases in which the unfeeling intellect is simply doltish. Pondering the split-second judgments of quarterbacks, pilots and firefighters, Lehrer shows that if conscious reason were all we had, it would be impossible to make solid nanosecond decisions.

Lehrer recounts one of the book's riveting stories. In the heat of the Persian Gulf War, Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Riley was manning a shipboard radar station when he picked up a blip showing something heading toward the Missouri. The projectile had the profile of both an incoming coalition A-6 aircraft and an enemy Silkworm missile. Riley had no criteria for deciding between the two and was tortuously suspended between the possibilities of allowing a strike and blasting his brothers-in-arms out of the sky. But, Riley said, "There was something strange about this radar blip. It didn't feel like an A-6."

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