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How We Decide

A number of years ago I came across a book titled, “How We Decide”, written by science writer Jonah Lehrer. The book was very influential on my thinking about the role of emotion in decision making. The elevator statement to describe the thesis in the book might go like this: there are countless situations in which we are forced to make decisions when we cannot possibly ‘think’ about the decision fast enough – so we rely on the much faster perceptual system link to the emotion system of our brain to do so”. Examples used in the book included scenarios like batting in major league baseball. For example, Lehrer provided statistics on how fast a ball is thrown compared to how long it takes the batter to initiate a muscular reaction to begin swinging; the conclusion was that batters must make this decision beforethe pitcher even lets go of the ball in order to hit it. Thus, they are integrating subtle cues of the pitcher’s form and motion as he winds up and prepares the throw. Another example that stuck with me was of a navy ship’s captain who was tracking to fast-moving blips on the radar screen that were moving towards the ship (Gulf War I). The captain could not make radio contact and thus had to decide if these were incoming missiles that needed to be shot down, or incoming ally planes needing to land. The captain waited until the last possible safe moment to decide. I don’t actually remember which way it went, but he made the right decision. Later the Navy, interested in capitalizing on this correct decision analyzed the radar data and data from thousands of radar patterns and determined that there were subtle differences in the patterns of planes and missiles as the cross the screen, differences so subtle one might not be consciously aware of them, but the visual system could detect the differences and indicate this to the emotion system in the brain. Lehrer has a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from Oxford and is a very skillful writer, having had positions at Wireand The New Yorker. In between vignettes he presented evidence from neuroscience to help explain the neurologic structures that made this process possible, thus shedding immense light on an issue that has divided western thinkers since Plato opined for a utopian society in which all decisions were made from a rational (aka emotion-free) mind.

The book seemed like a treasure trove of inspiration for this blog and my ever-evolving thoughts about decision-making. I was unable to get a copy from my local bookstore (out of print), but on-line resources located a used copy, so I ordered it. This morning I re-read the first chapter and found the lightbulbs going off almost as brightly and quickly as they had the first time I read the book. I was excited to get to my blog and spent a fair amount of time mid-day trying to narrow down the focus, even the first chapter is so rich in ideas that it would be too much.

As is my habit, I started out naming my source and then going to Google to get helpful links to the author and his book. Imagine the scene, unfolding in slow motion, as what I thought would be a 1-minute data retrieval revealed that Lehrer had confessed to making up quotes in his book that followed How we Decide, forcing him to resign his prestigious staff-writer positions and find himself embroiled in controversy! This happened back in 2012. Since then, he tried a come-back that didn’t go over well, he had garnered so much mistrust that even in his attempt for redemption the critics found sloppy quotations and failures to properly site sources.

Now, what was I to do? I found nothing on the internet condemning his work in How We Decide, and more generally no complaints about the scientific aspects of his work. The problems he ran into with Imagination – How Creativity Worksrevolved around making up quotes from Bob Dylan (presumably as evidence of his creative process, I really don’t know). It appears he had a habit of integrating information and ideas and presenting it as it was possibly his own insight, or at least just being opaque about where those ideas actually came from. He was also found to have recycled content in more than one publication. There was no indication that his sciencewriting was flawed. Thus, I could proceed with my original blog idea and riff on the findings he presented. But that just didn’t sit right with me. I teach Ethics In Counseling and thus have both cognitive strategies for evaluating ethical dilemmas as well as some moral sensitivitywhich is what we call the inner voice that recognizes when something just isn’t right. I was pretty sure I could write about the ideas in the book in such a way as to avoid inducing any real harm. I could gloss over the ideas in big swooping generalizations without quoting specifics (as these might be the most likely inaccuracies). Further, even if some of the writing was exaggerated and/or not completely accurate from a scientific perspective, its highly unlikely that anyone would take from my blog post anything that would consciously change their process for specific decisions they were working on – thus no harm would be done.

But here is what bothered me and ultimately kept me from writing a post as if I had no knowledge of Lehrer’s problems. The book presents scientifically based evidence and theory to explain something that has been at the heart of intellectual human debate for thousands of years. This kind of evidence has enormous cache in American culture these days and is often used to bully the public into changing beliefs and behaviors in numerous domains of our lives (e.g. diet, disease screening, vaccinations, etc.). As a scientist myself, I am particularly appalled at how so many findings are presented in an uncritical, and actually unscientific context. Even if the content of Lehrer’s book was accurate, not doing due diligence to assure that I was comfortable with it before writing it with an air of authority that comes with a PhD in psychology just wouldn’t work for me. How do I know? Because I had that sinking feelingin my gut as I imagined posting the blog.

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