images-1How we make decisions is an argument between our rational and emotional brains. We should always at least entertain competing hypothesis (Lehrer 247) and continually remind ourselves of what we don’t know (Lehrer 247). General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the first Gulf War used to tell his intelligence officers to first “tell me what you know,” “then tell me what you don’t know and only then you can tell me what you think. Always keep those three separated.”

It is this diversity, in fact, that has made commercial air travel one of the safest forms of travel in the world. Prior to 1978 airliners were controlled by the captain with almost godlike power. Dissent was not tolerated – until it started killing hundreds of passengers. The airlines implemented Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) which created an environment in which a diversity of viewpoints is freely shared on the cockpit. While the captain is the pilot-in-command and still makes the final decision, he or she is no longer the dictator. Flight crews are expected to work together and constantly communicate.

The best decisions emerge when a multiplicity of viewpoints are brought to bear. On United flight 232 to all of the pilots credited CRM with helping them make the runway.

Final Thoughts on the Brain –

The Light Side:

  • In general, we believe that carefully studying something leads to better outcomes since we’ll avoid errors (Lehrer 133). However, this can lead us to overthinking the situation and result in “choking.” We literally experience paralysis by analysis. And the more worried you are about your performance, the more likely you are to choke. This is also why beginners luck is actually true. They aren’t overthinking the instruction. For professional golfers, what keeps them FROM focussing on their swing mechanics when they are playing in a tournament (a sure way to screw up a shot), they focus instead on a holistic cue word, like smooth, or balanceThe lesson here isn’t to think less, it’s to focus on less at a time.
  • Our brains can handle only about seven things at a time (Lehrer 150). Remember how it used to be easy to remember a 7-digit phone number but when the area code got tossed in suddenly it became much harder? This is also the case when we attempt to make decisions. Overload fatigues our prefrontal cortex, which requires a lot of energy to operate, so we end up getting cranky and annoyed by every little thing. We make better decisions when we’re not overwhelmed with information.
  • Simple problems require simple reason (Lehrer 244). Pretty much any problem with more than four distinct variables overwhelms the rational brain (Lehrer 244). Novel problems also require reason – like on United Flight 232, if the problem really is unprecedented, emotions cannot save you. Stop and think and let your working memory tackle the dilemma (Lehrer 244).
  • People who are in good modes are significantly better at solving hard problems (Lehrer 246). The prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain that do much of the thinking are not preoccupied with managing your emotional life. In other words, they are not worrying about why you’re not happy which means you’re free to solve the problem at hand (Lehrer 246). When you are unhappy, those areas of the brain are activated to try and solve the unhappiness problem.

The Dark Side

  • Child abuse is the ugly gift that keeps on giving – or taking rather. We are born with an intense need for attachment, cuddling with our mothers because we want to experience their warmth and tenderness. Adults (and kids) who are abused as kids show less sympathy to others and when trying to console someone, may even resort to violent threats (Lehrer 193). Cruelty can make someone cruel (Lehrer 189). It takes conscious choice and practice to overcome this lack of sympathy.
  • Most people assume psychopaths are, well, psycho. Turns out that psychopaths have above-average IQs and reasoning abilities but they do have damaged brains (Lehrer 169). A normal person recoils from violence, treats others fairly and helps strangers in need – making decisions that take other people besides yourself into account (Lehrer 169). Psychopaths never feel bad when they make other people people feel bad, hurting someone is just another way of getting what he or she wants (Lehrer 171).
  • The unfortunate lesson is that while some people are born brain damaged and are psychopaths, others can treat someone, particularly children, in a way that creates the same result.

The final lesson from Lehrer, is don’t be fooled by your own certainty. A critical error many “experts” make, is being so certain of their expertise that they only look for evidence that supports their preconceived opinions. This is typically known as certainty bias. The best way to avoid such certainty is to foster diversity, ensuring you won’t be fooled by your own false assumptions (Lehrer 218).

Unfortunately, the United States has two political parties, and an entire battalion of TV talk show hosts, that have yet to master this process. The outstanding Academy Award nominated movie “Lincoln,” based on the book “Team of Rivals,” demonstrated what diversity can accomplish. Rivals author Doris Kearns Goodwin, argues that it was Lincoln’s ability to deal with competing viewpoints that made him a remarkable president and leader (Lehrer 218). He intentionally filled his cabinet with rival politicians with extremely different ideologies (Lehrer 218).

Imagine what kind of country we would have if our political leaders filled their staffs with people with diverging viewpoints, rather than yes-men and supporters of their every whim and notion. Imagine what you could accomplish if you occasionally listened to someone that did not share your point of view – your brain already knows how to do this process.

Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.


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