Yeah, I know what you’re thinking just from the title: another book about psychology, decision making, and behavioral economics. And yeah, that’s pretty much right. Author Jonah Lehrer clomps around at the intersection of rationality street and emotional avenue, trying to figure out what kinds of traffic is best suited for each byway. And like those other books, this is all placed well within the context of every day (or at least plausible) problems: how do fire fighters and airline pilots react to emergencies? How do you make a better television soap opera or game show? Do smarter people make better quarterbacks? Which stock should you invest in? Do you need rationality or irrationality to get really, really good at poker?
And like the authors of those other books, he constructs models of the human mind to explain why it behaves as it does, especially when it behaves badly and/or irrationally. He even uses some of the exact same situations and examples as those other books. So it’s more of that, but there’s a little bit of a twist.
Specifically, Lehrer is a neoroscientist instead of your typical psychologist, and so he looks at a lot of the same questions as I’ve seen in books like Sway and Predictably Irrational but he takes cracks at them with a different set of tools. For example, while a behavioral economist or plan-Jane psychologist would use terms like “subconscious” or “incidental coding of frequency information” to describe how people figure out which decks are stacked in their favor in a simple card drawing game, Lehrer uses terms like “neurons” and “dopamine releases” to explain the same thing. This is an approach more grounded in biology and biochemistry than it is sociology and economics. And what’s really fascinating to me is that both sets of scientists are right; they’re just using different models and paradigms to investigate the same stuff and it’s great to see where they compliment each other.
And independent of which branch of the great tree of science upon which Lehrer perches, I really liked his writing style. The writing is crisp and to the point, yet it doesn’t talk down to you. Every lesson and mental exercise is couched in terms of some fascinating context, like those fire fighters, airline pilots, poker players, stock brokers, and athletes I mentioned. It’s good popular science writing, which seems to be somewhat hard to come by.