How We Decide – by Jonah Lehrer

The process of thinking requires feeling, for feelings are what let us understand all the information that we can’t directly comprehend. Reason without emotion is impotent.

Every time you make a mistake or encounter something new, your brain cells are busy changing themselves. Our emotions are deeply empirical.

When Schultz studied those juice-craving monkeys, he discovered that it took only a few experimental trials before the monkey’s neurons knew exactly when to expect their rewards. The neurons did this by continually incorporating the new information, turning a negative feeling into a teachable moment. If the juice didn’t arrive, then the dopamine cells adjusted their expectations. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on your dopamine neurons.

On why you should fail often:
When the mind is denied the emotional sting of losing, it never figures out how to win.

Even when we think we know nothing, our brains know something. That’s what our feelings are trying to tell us.

According to Robertie, the most effective way to get better is to focus on your mistakes. In other words, you need to consciously consider the errors being internalized by your dopamine neurons. After Robertie plays a chess match, or a poker hand, or a backgammon game, he painstakingly reviews what happened.
He knows that self-criticism is the secret to self-improvement; negative feedback is the best kind.

The physicist Niels Bohr once defined an expert as “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”

Instead of praising kids for trying hard, teachers typically praise them for their innate intelligence (being smart). Dweck has shown that this type of encouragement actually backfires, since it leads the students to see mistakes as a sign of stupidity and not as the building blocks of knowledge. The regrettable outcome is that kids never learn how to learn.

Kids praised for their hard work were more interested in the higher-scoring exams. They wanted to understand their mistakes, to learn from their errors, to figure out how to do better.

The experience of failure had been so discouraging for the “smart” kids that they actually regressed.

“I’m looking really hard for my mistakes. I pretty much always want to find 30 mistakes, 30 things that I could have done better. If I can’t find 30, then I’m not looking hard enough.” – – Herb Stein (TV shows)

A player who thinks he has a hot hand has a distorted sense of his own talent, which leads him to take riskier shots, since he assumes his streak will save him (overconfidence). Of course, the player is also more likely to miss these riskier shots. According Tversky and Gilovich, the best shooters always think they’re cold. When their feelings tell them to take the shots because they’ve got the hot hands, they don’t listen.

“People enjoy investing in the market and gambling in a casino for the same reason that they see Snoopy in the clouds. When the brain is exposed to anything random, like a slot machine or the shape of a cloud, it automatically imposes a pattern onto the noise. But that isn’t Snoopy, and you haven’t found the secret pattern in the stock market.”
– Read Montague (neuroscientist)

Since the market is a random walk with an upward slope, the best solution is to pick a low-cost index fund and wait. Patiently. Don’t fixacte on what might have been or obsess over someone else’s profits. The investor who does nothing to his stock portfolio – who doesn’t buy or sell a single stock – outperforms the average “active” investor by nearly 10%.

The world is more random than we can imagine. That’s what our emotions can’t understand.

On credit cards:
“I always ask people, ‘Would you have bought the item if you had to pay cash? If you had to go to an ATM and feel the money in your hands and then hand it over?’ Most of the time, they think about it for a minute and they say no.”
– Herman Palmer (financial counselor)

When you buy something with cash, the purchase involves an actual loss – your wallet is literally lighter. Credit cards, however, make the transaction abstract, so that you don’t really feel the downside of spending money. Brain-imaging experiments suggest that paying with credit cards actually reduces activity in the insula, a brain region associated with negative feelings.

Our emotional brain wants to max out the credit card, order dessert, and smoke a cigarette. When it sees something it wants, it has difficulty waiting to get it.

The emotional brains is routinely duped by these tempting (but financially foolish) advertisements. “I always tell people to read ONLY the fine print. The bigger the print, the less it matters.”

Because the emotional parts of the brain reliably undervalue the future – life is short and we want pleasure now – we all end up spending too much money today and delaying saving until tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow).

This human foible is known as the framing effect, and it’s a byproduct of loss aversion. The effect helps explain why people are much more likely to buy meat when it’s labeled 85% lean instead of 15% fat. And why twice as many patients opt for sugery when told there’s 80% chance of their surviving instead of a 20% chande of their dying.

How do we regulate our emotions? The answer is surpisingly simple: thinking about them. The prefrontal cortex allows each of us to contemplate his or her own mind, a talent psychologists call metacognition. We know when we are angry; every emotional state comes with self-awareness attached, so that an individual can try to figure out why he’s feeling what he’s feeling. If the particular feeling makes no sense – if the amygdala is simply responding to a loss frame, for example – then it can be discounted. The prefrontal cortex can deliberately choose to ignore the emotional brain. (stoicism)

Aristotle argued that one of the critical functions of the rational soul was to make sure that emotions were intelligently applied to the real world. “Anyone can become angry – that is easy,” Aristotle wrote. “But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.” That requires some thought.

The rational brain can’t silence emotions, but it can help figure out which ones should be followed.

There was a strong correlation between the behavior of the four-year-old waiting for a marshmallow and that child’s future behavior as a young adult. The children who rang the bell within a minute were much more likely to have behavioral problems later on. They got worse grades and were more likely to do drugs. They struggled in stressful situations and had short tempers. Their SAT scores were, on average, 210 points lower than those of kids who’d waited several minutes before ringing the bell. In fact, the marshmallow test turned out to be a better predictor of SAT results than the IQ tests given to the four-year-olds.

[…] patient children were better at using reason to control their impulses. They were the kids who covered their eyes, or looked in the other direction, or managed to shift their attention to something other than the delicious marshmallow sitting right there.

It turned out that the same cognitive skills that allowed these kids to thwart temptation also allowed them to spend more time on their homework. In both situations, the prefrontal cortex was forced to exercise its cortical authority and inhibit the impulses that got in the way of the goal.

Jung-Beeman found that the mind was carefully preparing itself for the epiphany; every successful insight was preceded by the same sequence of cortical events. He likes to quote Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

From the perspective of the brain, new ideas are merely several old thoughts that occur at the exact same time.

Unless you are disciplined about what you choose to think about you won’t be able to effectively think through your problem. You’ll be so overwhelmed by all those incoming ideas that you’ll never be able to figure out which ones are genuine insights.

What causes choking? Although it might seem like an amorphous category of failure, or even a case of excess emotion, choking is actually triggered by a specific mental mistake: THINKING TOO MUCH. The sequence of events typically goes like this: When a person gets nervous about performing, he naturally becomes extra self-conscious. He starts to focus on himself, trying to make sure that he doesn’t make any mistakes. He begins scrutinizing actions that are best performed on autopilot. Fleming (opera star) started to think about aspects of singing that she hadn’t thought about since she was a beginner, such as where to position her tongue and how to shape her mouth for different pitches. This kind of deliberation can be lethal for a performer. The opera singer forgets how to sing. The pitcher concentrates too much on his motion and loses the control of his fastball. The actor gets anxious about his lines and seizes up onstage. In each of these instances, the natural fluidity of performance is lost. The grace of talent disappears.

[…] novice putters hit better shots when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time the beginner spends thinking about the putt, the more likely he is to sink the ball in the hole. By concentrating on the golf game, by paying attention to the mechanics of the stroke, the novice can avoid beginners’ mistakes.
A little experience, however, changes everything. After a golfer has learned how to putt – once he or she has memorized the necessary movements – analyzing the stroke is a waste of time. The brain already knows what to do. […] when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly WORSE shots.

When you are at a high level, your skills become somewhat automated. You don’t need to pay attention to every step in what you’re doing.

Experienced golfers should focus on general aspects of their intended movement, what psychologists call a holistic cue word. For instance, instead of contemplating something like the precise position of the wrist or elbow, the player should focus on a descriptive adjective, such as SMOOTH or BALANCED.

While reason is a powerful cognitive tool, it’s dangerous to rely exclusively on the deliberations of the prefrontal cortex. When the rational brain hijacks the mind, people tend to make all sorts of decision-making mistakes. They hit bad golf shots and choose wrong answers on standardized tests. They ignore the wisdom of their emotions – the knowledge embedded in their dopamine neurons – and start reaching for things that they can’t explain. Instead of going with the option that feels the best, a person starts going with the option that SOUNDS the best, even if it’s a very bad idea.

A recent study found that when a person travels more than one hour in each direction, he or she has to make 40% more money in order to be as “satisfied with life” as a person with a short commute.

Consumers typically suffer from a version of the placebo effect. Since they EXPECT cheaper goods to be less effective, they generally ARE less effective, even if the goods are identical to more expensive products. This is why brand-name aspirin works better than generic aspirin and why Coke tastes better than cheaper colas, even if most consumers can’t tell the difference in blind taste test.

Only one brain region seemed to respond to the PRICE of the wine rather than the wine itself: the prefrontal cortex. In general, more expensive wines made parts of the prefrontal cortex more excited.

We don’t realize how powerful our expectations are. They can really modulate every aspect of our experience. And if our expectations are based on false assumptions – like the assumption that more expensive wine tastes better – they can be very misleading.

In many circumstances, we could make better consumer decisions by knowing LESS about the products we are buying.

The prefrontal cortex isn’t good at picking out jams or energy drinks or bottles of wine. Such decisions are like a golf swing: they are best done with the emotional brain, which generates its verdict automatically.

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. The conscious brain can only handle about seven pieces of data at any moment.

Distracting the brain with a challenging memory task made a person much more likely to give in to temptation and choose that calorie-dense dessert. […] the effort required to memorize seven digits drew cognitive resources away from the part of the brain that normally controls emotional urges. Because working memory and rationality share a common cortical source – the prefrontal cortex – a mind trying to remember lots of information is less able to exert control over its impulses. The substrate of reason is so limited that a few extra digits can become an extreme handicap.

[…] why we get cranky when we’re hungry and tired: the brain is less able to suppress the negative emotions sparked by small annoyances. A bad mood is really just a rundown prefrontal cortex.

This is known as the anchoring effect, since a meaningless anchor – in this case, a random number – can have strong impact on subsequent decisions. Consider the price tags in a car dealership. Nobody actually pays the prices listed in bold black ink on the windows. The inflated sticker is merely an anchor that allows the car salesperson to make the real price of the car seem like a better deal. When a person is offered the inevitable discount, the prefrontal cortex is convinced that the car is a bargain.

The fragility of the prefrontal cortex means that we all have to be extremely vigilant about not paying attention to unnecessary information. The anchoring effect demonstrates how a single additional fact can systematically distort the reasoning process. Instead of focusing on the important variable – how much is that cordless keyboard really worth? – we get distracted by some meaningless numbers. And then we spend too much money.

We live in a culture that’s awash in information; it’s the age of Google, cable news, and free online encyclopedias. We get anxious whenever we get cut off from all this knowledge, as if it’s impossible for anyone to make a decision without a search engine. But this abundance comes with some hidden costs. The main problem is that the human brain wasn’t designed to deal with such as surfeit of data. As a results, we are constantly exceeding the capacity of our prefrontal cortices, feeding them more facts and figures than they can handle.

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” – Herbert Simon

When making decisions, people almost always assume that more information is better. […] But it’s important to know the limitations of this approach, which are rooted in the limitations of the brain. The prefrontal cortex can only handle so much information at any one time, so when a person gives it too many facts then asks it to make a decision based on the facts that SEEM important, that person is asking for trouble. He is going to buy the wrong items at Wal-Mart and pick the wrong stocks.

It’s amazing how perfectly intelligent people will make foolish decisions if you give them lots of irrelevant stuff to consider.

How we decide should depend on what we are deciding.

While the anatomy of evil remains incomplete, neuroscientists are beginning to identify the specific deficits that define the psychopatic brain. The main problem seems to be a broken amygdala, a brain area responsible for propagating aversive emotions such as fear and anxiety. As a result, psychopats never feel bad when they make other people feel bad. Aggression doesn’t make them nervous. Terror isn’t terrifying.

“The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”
– G.K Chesterton

“Moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate … Moral arguments are much the same: two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other.”
– Jonathan Haidt

“So convenient a thing is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

One of the ways neuroscientists learn about the brain is by studying what happens when something goes wrong with it. For example, scientists learned about the importance of our moral emotions by studying psychopats.

The broken mind helps us understand how the normal mind works.

Whenever you see a human face, you use a highly specialized brain region called the fusiform face area that is solely devoted to helping you recognize other people. In contrast, when you look at a chair, the brain relies on the inferior temporal gyrus, an area activated by any sort of complex visual scene. However, in the study, people with autism never turned on the fusiform face area. They looked at human faces with the part of the brain that normally recognizes objects. A person was just another thing. A face generated no more emotion than a chair.

Once people become socially isolated, they stop stimulating the feelings of other people. Their moral intuitions are never tuned on. As a result, the inner Machiavelli takes over, and the sense of sympathy is squashed by selfhishness. The UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has found that in many social situations, people with power act just like patients with damage to the emotional brain. “The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially appropriate behavior. You become very impulsive and insensitive, which is a bad situation.”

Accroing to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our minds can’t comprehend suffering on such as massive scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. And why we donate thousands of dollars to help a single African war orphan featured on the cover of a magazine but ignore widespread genocides in Rwanda and Darfur. As Mother Theresa put it, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Researchers have found that when a store puts a promotional sticker next to the price tag – something like “Bargain buy!” or “Hot deal!” – but doesn’t actually reduce the price, sales of that item still dramatically increase. These retail tactics lull the brian into buying more things, since the insula is pacified. We go broke convinced that we are saving money.

Voters think that they’re thinking, but what they are really doing is inventing facts or ignoring facts so that they can rationalize decisions they’ve already made. Once you identify with a political party, the world is edited to fit with your ideology.

We all silence the cognitive dissonance through self-imposed ignorance.

The people on television who are most certain are almost always certainly going to be wrong.

“The dominant danger [for pundits] remains hubris, the vice of closed-mindedness, of dismissing dissonant possibilities too quickly.” –
Philip  Tetlock

The only way to counteract the bias for certainty is to encourage some inner dissonance. We must force ourselves to think about the information we don’t want to think about, to pay attention to the data that disturbs our entrenched beliefs. When we start censoring our minds, turning off those brain areas that contradict our assumptions, we end up ignoring relevant evidence.

We often make decisions on issues that are exceedingly complicated. In these situations, it’s probably a mistake to consciously reflect on all the options, as this inundates the prefrontal cortex with too much data.

“Use you conscious mind to acquire all the information you need for making a decision. But don’t try to analyze the information with your conscious mind. Instead, go on holiday while your unconscious mind digests it. Whatever your intuition then tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice.”
– Ap Dijksterhuis

As long as someone has sufficient experience in a particular domain – he’s taken the time to train his dopamine neurons – then he shouldn’t spend too much time consciously contemplating the alternatives. The hardest calls are the ones that require the most feeling.

It’s those moments when emotions seem most persuasive -when the brain is completely convinced that it’s time to go all in – that you should take a little extra time to reflect on the emotional decision. Make yourself consider alternative possibilities and scenarios.

We need to cultivate the art of self-overhearing, to learn to eavesdrop on the mental converations we have with ourselves.


If the decision doesn’t matter all that much, the prefrontal cortex should take the time to carefully assess and analyze the options.

Think LESS about those items that you care a lot about. Don’t be afraid to let your emotions choose.


People in good moods are significantly better at solving hard problems that require insight than people who are cranky and depressed. (Happy people solve nearly 20% more word puzzles than unhappy people.) […] this is because the brain areas associated with executive control, such as the prefrontal cortex and the ACC, aren’t as preoccupied with managing emotional life. In other words theys aren’t worrying about why you’re not happy, which means they are free to solve the problem at hand.


There are two simple tricks to help you ensure that you never let certainty interfere with your judgment.
First, always entertain competing hypotheses.
Second, continually remind yourself of what you DON’T know.

“Tell me what you know, then tell me what you don’t know, and only then can you tell me what you think. Always keep those three separated.”
– Colin Powell


The emotional brain is especially useful at helping us make hard decisions. Its massive computational power – its ability to process millions of bits of data in parallel – ensures that you can analyze all the relevant information when assessing alternatives. Mysteries are broken down into manageable chunks, which are then translated into practical feelings.
The reason these emotions are so intelligent is that they’ve managed to turn mistakes into educational events. You are constantly benefitting from experience, even if you’re not consciously aware of the benefits. It doesn’t matter if your field of expertise is backgammon or Middle East politics, golf or computer programming: the brain always learns the same way, accumulating wisdom through errors.
There are not shortcuts to this painstaking process; becoming an expert just takes time and practice. But once you’ve developed expertise in a particular area – once you’ve made the requisite mistakes – it’s important to trust your emotions when making decisions in that domain. It is feelings, after all, and not the prefrontal cortex, that capture the wisdom of experience.

The one thing you should always be doing is considering your emotions, thinking about why you’re feeling what you’re feeling.


Whenever you make a decision, be aware of the kind of decision you are making and the kind of thought process it requires. It doesn’t matter if you’re choosing between wide receivers or political candidates. You might be playing poker or assessing the results of a television focus group. The best way to make sure you are using your brain properly is to study your brain at work, to listen to the argument inside your head.

The best decision makers become students of error, determined to learn from what went wrong. They think about what they could have done differently so that the next time their neurons will know what to do. This is the most astonishing thing about the human brain: it can always improve itself. Tomorrow, we can make better decisions.

“We want pilots to make mistakes in the simulator. The goal is to learn from those mistakes when they don’t count, so that when it really matters, you can make the right decision.” This approach targets the dopamine system, which improves itself by studying errors.


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