Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions...

I'm not sure why I decided to buy and read How We Decide by Dr. Jonah Lehrer, but the author is certainly interested in not just "why" but also "how" I made that decision.

I was in LAX with six hours of travel time ahead of me heading to Arkansas for a home visit. I had just said goodbye to dear friends. Perhaps my feeling of sadness resulted in a desire to compensate with a gift to make me feel better. "In human decision making, losses loom larger than gains" (pg 77). I paid with a credit card and the use of plastic instead of cash decreased my sense of "loss aversion", but played into another brain flaw "which tends to overvalue immediate gains" (pg 87). But still, the store had hundreds of books to choose from - some prominently displayed like Lehrer's book, and some standing almost anonymously upon wall-to-wall book-shelves. I do remember spotting this title and remembering that the upcoming Gospel passage involved a group of disciples deciding to leave Jesus and "return to their former way of life." I think that is why I bought it.

The pilot and crew of the Boeing 777 I flew on are capable as any typical human "to process five to nine pieces of information at any given moment" (pg 244), but thankfully the pilot relies upon a sort of "muscle memory" for brains, so that instincts can assist in flying the plane - a task that throws numerous pieces of information at the pilot at a time. His decisions are not entirely conscious. Dopamine neurons assist in this process.

We live in a society heavily affected by Enlightenment thought which promotes a completely intellectual and rational approach to ethics and decision making processes while at the same time giving very little weight to emotions. We have, then, "the privileging of reason over emotion" (pg 13). But Lehrer argues that there is such a thing as emotional intelligence. In fact, typical psychopaths are quite rational, the problem is that they are too rational and are incapable of tapping into emotional intelligence, most likely due to a damaged amygdala portion of the brain. They react the same way to a photo of a frightened face as they do to a photo of a rose flower. Thus, there is some irony in courts recognizing insanity defenses. Leher's thesis seems to be that "for too long, people have disparaged the emotional brain, blaming our feelings for all of our mistakes" (pg 13).

Lehrer writes about various brain flaws such as loss aversion, greater weight placed upon immediate gains, the framing effect which "explains why people are much more likely to buy meat when it's labeled 85 percent lean instead of 15 percent fat" (pg 107) and the anchor effect, which occurs when we read the price tags on a car window. This effect is "about the brain's spectacular inability to dismiss irrelevant information" (pg 157). Throughout his descriptions he makes clear the existence of both a rational and emotional intelligence which works together in the brain.

While I found this book to be quite enjoyable, accessible, and ever interesting, I would ask from time to time just how Lehrer came up with various "values" he placed upon decisions. "Most", "right", "good", "best" were used to describe certain decisions. And yet, the book doesn't seem (or perhaps I missed it) to address how the human mind places "values" upon decisions. Why, for instance, were the Monet posters "better" than the cat posters. Or why was one location the "wrong place" to live, and others were the "right place" (pg 152).

And so, I was eager to read the sixth chapter The Moral Mind. As I mentioned earlier, Lehrer is interested in showing how we use emotional intelligence everyday and therefore, morality is not just a strictly rational enterprise as Kant and other Enlightenists promoted, but relies as well upon emotional intelligence. But Lehrer seems to go too far. He writes, "Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. Reasonableness is just a facade, an elaborate self-delusion" (pg 172-173). Lehrer makes clear that moral decisions are made by way of a 2 part process. "The emotional brain generates the verdict. It determines what is wrong and what is right. The rational brain, on the other hand, explains the verdict. It provides reasons, but those reasons all come after the fact" (pg 174-5).

I suppose this two-part process is easier to find plausible if the two parts are never too remote from one another. Perhaps it is the Catholic emphasis on the intellect that causes me to squirm a bit when I hear that moral decisions are primarily emotional/gut decisions only later dressed with a garnish of reasons, words, defenses, etc.

Lehrer goes on to say that ultimately moral decisions require a certain level of sympathy/empathy, something psychopaths and mass-murderers are incapable of having. Therefore, a grand distinction exists between personal and impersonal decisions. It's why children's aid commercials introduce the viewer to a specific child: "Hello. This is Amanda." Viewers are more likely to give to a child instead of to children or a nation of children. It's why soldiers are more likely to squeeze the trigger if the enemy is hundreds of miles away and nameless.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It made for a great travel/summer read and I recommend it to anyone who wants to know just how dopamine neurons train the brain so that "disappointment is educational" (pg 48).

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