Book Commentary: How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer

How We Decide is the latest book of pop cognitive science to attract significant attention. In it, Jonah Lehrer positions his discussion as something of a battle, or, at least, a give-and-take, between the brain’s deep-seated emotional urges and its rational considerations. One is not better than the other — each excels in certain situations (emotion is great for split-second decisions; reason helps make better choices given a limited number of options) and is detrimental (emotion is easily exploited through reactions to things like loss aversion; reason can lead to overthinking when given too much information) in others.

The book has a lot of information in it; which might also be it’s downfall. It’s clear that Lehrer has attended the Gladwell school of non-fiction writing, anchoring his facts in stories. The difference is that Gladwell employs just a handful of stories over the course of a book, letting each one breathe, having each one carry significant weight. Lehrer stuffs How We Decide with little story after little story, and after a while, you lose the bigger plot. I would have preferred Lehrer to focus on just a few key tales — the firefighter who figured out how to save himself in a raging brush blaze; the kids with the marshmallows; the poker player who embodies the perfect balance of reason and emotion — and let go of the study after study after study that he relates.

Another challenge this book faces is the glut of adjacently-themed texts. Having read Gladwell’s Blink and Outliers, and Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and having heard the marshmallow story (it’s become a surprisingly prevalent flash-meme in the past few months), I was familiar with much of the book, and in an odd way — I kept wondering if I had read the story earlier in How We Decide, only to realize I had read it in another book.

My guess is this is a good book for those who haven’t been keeping up on the latest discussions in cognitive science, and are looking for an informative foundation. I respect Lehrer for not engaging in the type of specious/fallacious reasoning that has afflicted Gladwell’s work. Lehrer recognizes that the sentiment “it depends” is not only valid, but essential to the discussion, and doesn’t propose sweeping generalizations or applications.

Don’t Challenge My Assumptions!

In a post on Maya Design’s blog, David Bishop asks, “Why is it so hard to talk to users?” and presents all the different excuses he’s heard for not engaging with customers in the design process.

In reading his post, I realized the answer to his question is simple, and wrote him the following:

People in organizations are afraid of what their customers actually think. If they had to face this reality, it would call into question many assumptions. People don’t want their assumptions challenged. So, they’d rather a) come up with excuses or b) use unhelpful “market research” tools like surveys and focus groups, tools whose data is squishy enough that it can be interpreted to suit any beliefs.

The reason I’m confident about this answer is because it’s pretty much true of human nature — we resist information that challenges what we already believe to be true. For many, if not most, companies, actual conversations with customers would demonstrate that closely held beliefs are actually canards.

Adaptive Path’s Mobile Literacy Project – Take Part!

Adaptive Path’s latest R&D project has been released: Mobile Literacy, which addresses the design of mobile technology in emerging markets (in our case, rural India).

There’s tons to chew on. I would start with the concepts, the MobilGlyph and Steampunk.

If those intrigue you, then I’d move to the deep research. Our team spent 6 weeks in the Kutch district of Western India to understand the how uneducated and illiterate peoples use technology, particularly mobile phones, in their lives. A big challenge is that these phones are designed for Western (specifically, northern European) audiences, and many of their assumptions don’t hold true in this area.

The most important thing is to rally others to take part as well. That’s why we’ve made all of our research available, and why we’re sharing the design principles that emerged from that research. We recognize that our concepts are just two of many that could address the challenges of bringing mobile technology to emerging markets. I hope we see many more!