Brainy Decisions

I just finished a book I highly recommend by Jonah Lehrer on “How We Decide”, something that market researchers, among others, should look into. There is good stuff in there on focus groups, how distressful situations need prefrontal-lobe concentration, how emotions can sometimes interfere and other times aid in making decisions, how complex decisions that might overload the prefrontal lobes are aided by “time outs” to allow the emotional brain time to “catch up” and provide support, how a world class gambler hones his intuitions in making betting decisions. So when you have a tough decision that is literally freezing you into decide-a-phobia, go take a shower, or a nap, or a walk and give it a rest, that is if you are not in a jet plane at 36,000 feet with no way to steer.

Sully glided his jet liner gently onto the Hudson River with great prefrontal lobe help taking over. A miracle in itself. Lehrer describes how years ago a DC-10 jumbo jet from Denver to Chicago suffered a broken disc in its tail engine, severing the three redundant hydraulic systems, and leaving the pilots with no means of steering the plane. Yet somehow they found a unique decision-making path through this unprecedented situation (nothing in the pilot’s manual about this, no phone help from expert pilots) and, although they unfortunately lost 126 lives, they also saved 186 lives almost certain to have perished were it not for the pilot’s decisions. The pilot was on his own as was Sully. His decisions led to new training of pilots to cope with this harrowing situation.

It turns out that focus group research for shows like Seinfeld, Hill Street Blues, and The Mary Tyler Moor Show all indicated flops in the making. How did this research go wrong? You have to understand what it is that is happening. Remember Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”? He was talking about researchers (Mr Jones) when he said “You walk into a room and you know there’s something happening, but you don’t know what it is, DO YOU, Mr. Jo-o-o-ones?“ You really have to understand what exactly it is that you are asking, of whom, and if you are missing the point by asking someone to tell you why they like the taste of this better than that. When you start focusing on one trait or another, you can skew or muddle the overall experience, the big picture, the most important picture.

Nuf said. Related to this decision making is research on the Brain that is now illuminating all kinds of interesting things. Go to and watch the first four episodes (of what will be a total of 12 hour long segments when completed) of his Brain Series with Eric Kendel, Nobel Laureate for neurological work on memory. (Lehrer was a student in Kendel’s lab). This is truly a great use of the airwaves for educational advancement in understanding the neurological workings of our moods, social behavior, empathy towards others, visual fields, memory, facial recognition, and much more.

Here is a blog by Jonah Lehrer that I also highly recommend. Personal disclosure: None! I have no relation to Jonah whatsoever. He just does good stuff worth reading about and thinking about.


Author: wpadmin