The Art of “Words”
By: Shifra Lipson - SDM
One of my favorite forms of entertainment is a good book. There really is nothing like slipping away into someone a novelist's world, or opening your eyes to new knowledge thanks to the diligent research and talented synthesis of a non-fiction writer. And all this pleasure and learning is free, if you have a library card! A library card is indisputably the best deal anywhere. Nothing to buy, no shipping and handling fees, no fear that it will be the wrong size or color. The library is one of the great equalizing forces of a strong democracy because it allows equal access to the world's knowledge.
Since I consider my time to be extremely valuable, I am very picky with the books I read. In non-fiction, I would strongly recommend "How We Decide" by Jonah Lehrer. I read as many books as I can on decision making because I find the human brain fascinating and because I know that we live in an age when all of our decisions mean money in somebody's pocket. Therefore the people who stand to gain from our decisions are most definitely studying how to get us to choose something, and I don't like people messing with my brain without my knowledge. "How We Decide" is definitely one of the best books for laypeople that I have found on the subject so far.
"How We Decide" puts the latest brain research on decision-making into words and examples that nomal people can actually make sense of. Lehrer uses his considerable storytelling skills to present the reader with concrete examples illustrating different processes used by the brain to make choices. If I understand correctly, there are basically two ways to make a decision: rationally weigh all of the pros and cons, or go with your gut feeling. These two decision making processes use two very different mechanisms in the human brain. To simplify, I'll call them the conscious and subconscious minds, although Lehrer goes into considerably more detail than that. The basic question is, what is the right way to make each of the millions of decisions we make each day, from which socks to wear or what to eat for breakfast, to which car to buy and how to prioritize your expenses. Had you ever in your life thought so much about thinking?
Spoiler Alert: it turns out that there is no one right way. Surprisingly, the instinctive or intuitive way works best for decisions that involve multiple variables, where our brain is experienced and, most surprising of all, that are extremely important to us! These decisions include choosing a home, or an instant decision on the playing field. In those cases, it is actually best to go with your gut feeling, rather than taking the time to get bogged down in the details and be misled by irrelevant "facts". Personally, I find this particularly liberating. I have very strong gut reactions to many things and I always fought to repress them, thinking them silly and irrelevant. Turns out that often they are right! One caveat: remember that this applies especially to areas where our brain has had multiple experiences. As all old-school teachers knew before it became unfashionable, human beings learn from their errors. This means that if your child takes a test or hands in a project, you must insist that the teacher give it back to them with feedback so they can learn from their mistakes. There is absolutely no substitute for studying our own mistakes so that we not only learn that particular fact or process, but we also learn more about the types of mistakes we tend to make. Do not forget that at your next parent-teacher conference.
On the other hand, for decisions where there are 3-9 variables, depending on the expert being quoted, you should use your rational brain. Drag out the old calculator and do the math, or use your good old-fashioned mental arithmetic. Because the subconscious decision process evolved so long ago, there are plenty of newfangled things it hasn't evolved to cope with. This is the area where marketers and advertisers play with your mind. For example, did you know that your brain senses a loss when you spend real money, but doesn't feel a thing when you swipe a credit card? Although your brain knows when a place feels like home, it can be fooled by fancy packaging on a brand of cereal, or expensive prices on a bottle of wine. Leherer uses a particular example of this to illustrate this failing of our instincts. A researcher did two wine tastings. In the first, he showed the participants the bottles and prices of the wine. They overwhelmingly thought the more expensive wines tasted much better. In the second tasting, the researcher hid the bottles and prices. You guessed it. The tasters chose less expensive wines as their favorites, because they were basing their decisions on the evidence in front of them, and not on assumptions of quality caused by price and labels designed to appeal to other senses. Feel free to use that information at your next party when somebody calls you "cheap" because you brought the California Merlot and not the French Cabernet. Cheers!
Shifra Lipson is a commercial Spanish interpreter and translator, as well as writing extensively about arts and entertainment, travel and education. Ms. Lipson is based in Miami, Florida.