Verdict: Everyone should read it.
I’ve just finished reading The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The author conveys pretty complex information in a way that’s really easy to mentally digest. The thing about the workings of the mind is that, because we all have minds of our own, we have an idea about some of what he says. You’ve probably said ‘It’s so much easier to spend on the credit card than on cash’ and ‘Sometimes I feel like my brain is over-loaded with information.’ Other times you know in hindsight that you’ve made a good or bad decision, you just don’t know how or why you made that particular decision. Well, this is the theory and the reasoning why, along with helpful tips and insights into how to maximize your good decisions.
There were a few key learnings I took out, which can be applicable to advertising and communications and also just to general life and every day decision-making, so I’m going to list them here so I can refer back to them when I’m in need of some wisdom. Most are direct quotes, some are just paraphrasing for the benefit of brevity. None of this is of course a substitute for reading the book.
1. In the brain, “dopamine neurons constantly generate patterns based on experience: if this, then that…. The cacophony of reality is distilled into models correlation that allow the brain to anticipate what will happen next… After refining this set of cellular forecasts, the brain compares these predictions to what actually happens…. The brain is designed to amplify the shock of these mistaken predictions. Whenever it experiences something unexpected… the cortex immediately takes notice. Within milliseconds, the activity of the brain cells has been inflated into a powerful emotion. Nothing focuses the mind like surprise.” (p42)
2. Our feelings often work out patterns first, before we are consciously aware of them.
3. ‘Loss aversion’ is actually a mental defect. When a possible outcome is stated in a loss frame people are more likely to take a chance in order to try to avoid a loss. If the same outcome is presented in a loss and a ‘gain’ frame, more risks will be taken to avoid the loss. “Loss aversion is now recognized as a powerful mental habit with widespread implications. The desire to avoid anything that smacks of loss often shapes our behaviour, leading us to do foolish things.” (P78)
4. “Loss aversion is… part of a larger psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias, which means that, for the human mind, bad is stronger than good. This is why, in marital interactions, it generally takes five kind comments to compensate for one critical comment.” (P82)
5. When humans contemplate a reward in the future, brain areas associated with rational planning such as the prefrontal cortex are more active. When we start thinking about getting that reward immediately areas of our brain associated with emotion – such as the midbrain dopamine system – are activated.
6. The focus group is a crude instrument, because people tend to favour the familiar. After the TV series Friends became a hit, other networks tried to imitate the formula with shows of their own, many of which researched very well in audience focus groups, but didn’t actually perform well on air. The reason was that the other shows researched well because they reminded research subjects of Friends – a show they liked – not because they like the show being tested.
“The conscious brain can only handle about seven pieces of data at any one moment.” Efforts to memorize more data draws 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.” (P148).
7. When a meaningless anchor, e.g. a random number, has an effect on decisions, it is called the anchor effect. An example of this is car dealers putting prices in the car windows, even though they intend to sell the cars for far less. The anchoring effect works because of “the brains spectacular inability to dismiss irrelevant information.” (P153)
8. “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” – Herbet Simon
9. Even mundane choices emerge from a ‘vigorous cortical debate’. In making a choice, each option activates a subset of competing thoughts. Each distinct claim triggers a particular set of emotions and associations, all of which compete for conscious attention. The stronger emotions and more compelling thoughts win over the weaker ones. (P192).
10. When you are shown an item that you have wanted for a while, it is your nucleus accumbens (NAcc) that is activated. “The NAcc is a crucial part of the dopamine reward pathway, and the intensity of its activation was a reflection of desire for the item.” If you are shown a product that you already own, your NAcc won’t be as excited as for something you have desired for a while. But when you are exposed to the price of the product, it is the insula and prefrontal cortex that are activated. The insula produces aversive feelings. “In general, we try to avoid anything that makes our insulas excited. This includes spending money.” In experiments, the prefrontal cortex gets most excited when the cost of the item is significantly lower than normal. It is thought that the prefrontal cortex is a ctivated as it is computing the numbers, trying to work out if the price is a good deal.
11. Isaiah Berlin identified two types of thinkers: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs know one big thing, while foxes know many things. “While the hedgehog reassures himself with certainty, while the fox relies on the solvent of doubt. He is skeptical of grand strategies and unifying theories. The fox accepts ambiguity and takes an ad hoc approach when coming up with explanations. The fox gathers data from a wide variety of sources and listens to a diversity of brain areas. The upshot is that the fox makes better predictions and decisions.” (P231).
12. “Mark Jung-Beeman, the scientist who studies the neuroscience of insight, has shown that people in good moods are significantly better at solving hard problems that require insight than people who are cranky and depressed.” (P235).