How We Decide - by Jonah Lehrer

When evolution was building the brain, it didn't bother to replace all of these emotional processes with new operations under explicit, conscious control. If something isn't broken, then natural selection isn't going to fix it. The mind is made out of used parts, engineered by a blind watchmaker. The result is that the uniquely human areas of the mind depend on the primitive mind underneath. 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.

This is a crucial cognitive talent. Dopamine neurons atomatically detect the subtle patterns that we would otherwise fail to notice; they assimilate all the data that we can't consciously comprehend. And then, once they come up with a set of refined predictions about how the world works, they translate these predictions into emotions.


SIMPLE PROBLEMS REQUIRE REASON. The only way to defend against innate flaws like loss aversion is to exercise reason, to fact-check with a little arithmetic. Which simple problems are best suited for the prefontral cortex? Ask yourself if the decision can be accurately summarized in numerical terms.

NOVEL PROBLEMS ALSO REQUIRE REASON. Before you entrust a mystery to the emotional brain, before deciding to let your instincts make the decision, ask yourself a question: How does your past experience help solve this particualar problem? Are these feelings rooted in experience, or are they just haphazard impulses? If the problem really is unprecedented, then emotions can't save you. Stop and think and let your working memory tackle the dilemma. The only way out of a unique mess is to come up with a creative solution and such insights require the flexible neurons of the prefrontal cortex.

EMBRACE UNCERTAINTY. Whenever possible, it's essential to extend the decision-making process and properly consider the argument unfolding inside your head. There are two simple tricks to help 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.

YOU KNOW MORE THAN YOU KNOW. The emotional brain is especially useful at helping us make hard decisions. Its massive computational power 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 benefiting from experience, even if you're not consciously aware of the benefits. There are no 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.

THINK ABOUT THINKING. Whenever you make a decison, be aware of the kind of decision you are making and the kind of thought process it requires. The best way to make sure that you are using your brain properly is to study your brain at work, to listen to the argument inside your head. There is no secret recipe for decision-making. There is only vigilance, the commitment to avoiding those errors that can be avoided.