Book Comparison: Gladwell’s Blink vs. Lehrer’s How We Decide

In case you Café Society denizens haven’t noticed, I like to write stuff out. In the case of stuff like music or guitar, I am trying to articulate an Insider’s view – based on my 30+ years of playing, gigging and geeking, I aspire to share any insights that help non-muso’s think differently about what they are hearing – or draw other muso’s into sharing insights I /we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Other times, like this thread, I am decidedly Outsider – no expertise whatsoever, but I am trying to process a book or books that I have read. I find writing stuff down forces me to structure my thinking and conclusions, which is helpful when I think there are take-aways worth pondering further. And since I plan to write this stuff out anyway, I figured I might put it on the Dope and see if anyone…well, cares – besides me, that is. :wink:

Okay, so I have just finished reading Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide(Amazon link) and the topic is remarkably similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s book which came out a couple of years ago, Blink(again, Amazon). Both have to do with how humans make decisions and what we can take away from an analysis of what is going on behind the scenes in our heads.

Both writers publish articles in the New Yorker, so both are known for being strong on wordcraft – they both write good ;). Both have a “bringing Science & Big Ideas to the masses” overall objective. Both start off chapters and/or new ideas by telling a story to engage the reader – e.g., an art expert examining a statue that could be an ancient find or a fake; a firejumper confronting a certain-death situation – and then break down that story to illustrate the point specific to the aspect of decision-making they are exploring in that section. Oh, and Lehrer’s book has a dust jacket meant to look Gladwellian, since our boy Malcolm has a certain look to his books and so Lehrer’s publisher is trying to piggyback on the look of Gladwell’s “brand” since Gladwell is really The Man for this type of book right now…

So – how do the two measure up?

To me, bottom line: Gladwell offers more of a pop-journalism overview of key ideas, whereas Lehrer explores the underlying mechanics of decision-making far more thoroughly while still maintaining a “book for the masses” accessibility and tone. Gladwell ponders the “What” of decision-making; Lehrer lays out the “How” – and his book is the better for it. In fact, one could argue that Gladwell focuses on one subset (a big one, but still a subset) within the model for decision-making that Lehrer shares in his book.

Let’s pick ‘em apart for a bit.

Blink: Bottom line, to me, is that Gladwell is trying to say “you know that stuff that just kinda feels right about decision making? Well, that’s okay” So, in other words:

  • It is good to be an expert: when the art historian views the Greek statue and realizes (spoiler! But not really) that it is a fake, well, she is relying on a deeply-earned expertise based on years of studying that stuff. The point is that when you have a deep expertise, sometime “you can just tell” and that is worthy of respect.
  • By the same token, in using an example about triaging heart disease at a Chicago emergency room, Gladwell illustrates how heuristics help. Basically, if you can take all of your knowledge on a topic and boil it down to a few basic rules, that is usually fast and good enough.

Gladwell plows through a few other examples, but his basic point is “hey, we are wired to make decisions by a variety of different means, and they actually work even if we don’t fully manage the process in a conscious way – isn’t that cool?”

And, yeah, it is – hence our boy Malcolm ending up on the best-seller list.

Now with How We Decide – well, Lehrer uses the same writing structure but to a very different end – the points he makes include:

  • Emotions serve a practical, mechanical purpose: This is a big deal. It isn’t just “whoa, I had a feeling.” Basically, Lehrer states that neuroscientists have taken our basic model of consciousness – there is a conscious brain and a subconscious brain – and applied it to decision making…within that model, emotions are the go-between. It turns out that our brains are like an iceberg for a very practical reason – we have a conscious brain that is very rational and can wrestle in depth with a few key issues at a time; our subconscious is capable of storing vast arrays of data and experience – but to be fully aware of that rich data set at all times would be distracting and unhelpful. So how did our brain evolve to deal? Well, it stashes all that complexity in our subconscious, and it uses emotions to communicate the insights gained from that complexity to our conscious, rational mind. He discusses experiments where subjects are shown to have emotional (i.e., lie-detector-like) responses to situations waaay before their rational minds can process and articulate that something is not right. Our subconscious has worked out that sumthin’ is fishy and begins sending signals well before we are truly aware. Think about it - not only does it make sense, but it paints a pretty evolutionarily efficient model for our brains, doesn’t it?

  • However, emotions are only so effective: he also shows how the mechanical responses of emotions, in their attempt to summarize vast sets of data and impressions into “gut feelings” can also be deceived. He shows how slot machines exploit the basic mechanics of how our brains work. He also shows how we typically compensate for this with our rational minds – how we can survey a situation and choose to override our emotional response and impose a rational response instead (the fire fighter in the certain-death situation illustrates this).

The point is that decision making has been designed evolutionarily to be expedient and practical. We have mechanisms that can distill vast stores of experience into emotional responses, and we have a rational brain that can evaluate our emotions and choose to accept their findings or look for other solutions.

So, whereas Gladwell basically says “our instincts about decision-making are true,” Lehrer lays out a full model for how our brain functions and plots out decision-making within that context. Not only did I find Lehrer’s book more satisfying, but it was more thought provoking, too. I mean, think about it: If Lehrer’s model for brain function is true – that emotions are the distillation of vast stores of data and experience to enable humans to make split-second decisions and avoid vacillating – well, wouldn’t that suggest that artificial intelligence would move in this direction, segregating processing functions and coming up with efficient means (i.e., emotions) to connect the long-term processing center with the overall executive consciousness?

Okay – I’m done. And, yeah, as with the long ramblings about guitar, I am on the road, half in the bag on wine and stuck in a hotel room. What does this say about my consciousness? :wink:

Monday morning bump

I know my late-night hotel-room rants are a slog, and this one has nothing to do with guitars, but I thought I would give it one more shot since I first posted late on a Friday night.

Did anyone else read either of these books?

Sorry, WordMan. I haven’t read either one, but the Lehrer book is on my list of books to be read now. Thanks.

Great write-up, WordMan! I read Blink a few years ago with great enthusiasm. I’ve been aware of the “copy-cats” but unaware of any of their specifics. I’ve been reluctant to pick any of them up for two reasons. First, my bookshelf only has so much room, and second, Gladwell is the original, after all. I think I’ll give How We Decide a closer look.

Your review of How We Decide led my mind over to another similar book I’d like to read: Predictably Irrational. Incidentally, there’s a link to it from the How We Decide page.

Oooo - cool; I added it to my Amazon shopping cart - thanks! I just ordered Jonah Lehrer’s first book a week ago after finishing How We Decide; it is called Proust Was a Neuroscientist. I am going to plow into it before I move on to more in this subject area.

And yeah, **Crotalus **- glad to hear you are looking into it. I found the book surprisingly accessible for all of its talk about brain function…

Thank you both. Two books just got thrown in the shopping cart–Ariely and Lehrer. I just finished “Blink” a month ago. Became a Gladwell fan after finishing “Outliers” when it got a good review on NPR.