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Finished How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer (4/5).

This was the first of two books I listed to through my trial Audible membership. Traditionally, I have not been big on audio books, but I try to walk to and partially from work, and these days it is rainy and dark in Seattle. Under those conditions, my regular habit of reading while walking does not work well. Because of this, when Amazon offered a 1 month free trial of Audible, I decided to try it.

I enjoyed the experience. The Audible Android app made it fairly easy to rewind, pause, and take notes. This allowed me to feel like I was able to get what I wanted out of the reading experience despite not being able to go at my own pace. Since I was walking, I did not have an issue with getting distracted. I would say the most annoying part of listening to an audiobook is the same as the most annoying part of reading an ebook: it is hard to flip back to a past point in the reading to check something. Since you cannot practically bookmark everything you may want to come back to, you have to make do with remembering approximately where things are. Search functionality would help, but nothing beats the experience of muscle memory.

Not being able to flip through the book also makes it more difficult to write a book summary, especially when I am lazy and wait a couple weeks between finishing the book and writing the summary. We'll see how this goes (thank goodness for Amazon's "Look Inside" feature).

Not surprisingly, How We Decide has a fair amount of overlap with other popular books about the mind including some that I have read (Blink, The Time Paradox, and The Paradox of Choice). However, despite an overlap in subject matter and in the studies citied, I feel like this book is among the better of these types of books.

In addition to presenting conclusions based on psychological studies, Lehrer uses information we have gained from studying the brain to build a description of how decision making works. The main tension when making decisions is between the emotional brain and the rational brain. Actually, that is a simplification. Both systems consist of multiple systems which may, in turn, disagree with each other. On the other side of the coin, both the emotional brain are really part of the same system and influence each other. But as a mental model, this two part view of the brain is instructive.

The details are interesting, but in the hopes of keeping things concise, I will cut to the chase. The emotional brain is good at taking in a lot of information and matching it against past experience. It's good for deciding personal preferences or making decisions in areas where you have a lot of experience. The rational brain is good at dealing with new experiences but can only take in a small amount of information. It's good at creating new solutions or making decisions when there are only a small number of factors to consider (perhaps as little as a dozen total across the possibilities).

When they work well, these two systems help each other, with the emotional brain internalizing when decisions in certain contexts lead to good and bad outcomes and the rational brain deciding when something new needs to be tried. When either of these systems fails completely (as happens with some types of brain trauma), people become unable to function independently Those who lose rational brain functionality become unable to make considered decisions. Those who lose emotional brain functionality become unable to make decisions at all. 

Lehrer states in his conclusion that the most important thing you should take from this book is that you should think about thinking. This allows you to avoid stupid errors that arise from predictable brain errors (errors such as loss aversion). It also allows you to improve the working of your brain over time. 

Another key thing to take from How We Decide is the idea that certainty is self defeating if you want to use your brain effectively. Certainty quiets the internal dissent that your various brain parts generate and leads to bad decisions. As Lehrer says:

The only way to counteract the bias for certainty is to encourage some inner dissonance. We must force ourselves to think about the information we don't want to think about, to pay attention to the data that disturbs our entrenched beliefs. We we start censoring our minds, turning of those brain areas that contradict our assumptions, we end up ignoring relevant evidence. ... 

But the certainty trap is not inevitable. We can take steps to prevent ourselves from shutting down our minds' argument too soon. We can consciously correct for this innate tendency. And if those steps fail, we can create decision-making environments that help us better entertain competing hypotheses. ...

when making decisions, actively resist the urge to suppress the argument. Instead, take time to listen to what all the different brain areas have to say. Good decisions rarely emerge from a false consensus. 

So spend some time thinking about thinking. 
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Finished Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Tavris and Aronson explore the cognitive biases that lead people to justify their own beliefs, even in the face of contrary evidence. They explore some of the ways this bias towards self justification negatively affects society and individuals. Tavris and Aronson did a good job with this material; the overview sections are a valuable read. About half of the book is case studies; the value of those chapters will depend on the interest you have in the domains they study.

The human brain excels at reducing cognitive dissonance. We ignore contrary evidence without even knowing it is there. Executives and criminals justify actions that are obviously wrong to the outside observer. You ignore your own judgmental behavior while vilifying the behavior of others.

Some self-justification makes evolutionary sense. If there is not sufficient contrary evidence, evaluating an idea wastes time and energy. Without some self-justification you would always second guess your decisions. Confidence builds on our self-justification skills.

Self-justification also makes neurological sense. Memory is not a recording of the past. We reconstruct the past based on a relatively sparse set of true data points. Memory is the narrative we create that unifies those facts with our self image and our model of the world.

Taken too far, self-justification leads to an inaccurate model of the world around you. Your bar for contrary evidence will rise too high. You will jump on small problems with contradictory material and ignore faults in supporting material. Eventually, self-justifying beliefs will filter your perceptions. Your mind will literally not consciously register that which contradicts your beliefs and will overemphasize that which supports your beliefs. (For examples, see the Internet.)

Tavris and Aronson explore the dangers of self-justification through four case studies. They show how self-justification can lead to bad, and sometimes tragic, results in clinical psychology, the legal system, relationships, and cultural interactions. In all of the case studies, self-justification becomes dangerous when a closed system allows positive feedback loops of self-justification. For example, admitting mistakes can kill a medical career, but not being able to admit mistakes leads to the self-justifying belief that mistakes are never made. When this causes a doctor to believe in a technique that does not really work, the result can be the death of a patient.

The pitfalls of self-justifiation can be avoided. The key tools are independent review, being able to admit you were wrong without justification, seeing mistakes as learning opportunities, learning how to constructively reduce dissonance, and learning how to live with dissonance when it cannot be resolved. Easier said than done, especially at an individual level. But there are huge benefits to be earned from avoiding self-justification, especially systemic institutional self-justification.
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I am starting to think that I do not have any faith in our economic system. Not capitalism, but capitalism coupled tightly with growth at all costs. Our industrial system of production is so efficient that products can saturate the market quickly. But growth is the only measure of success, so companies must convince people they need more (2 cars! 3 cars! a TV in every room!) or they must obsolete the original product through low quality manufacturing or coming out with new versions that show no innovation (but come in this year's hot color!).

Companies try to maximize revenue, but they also try to minimize costs. Make the process more efficient. Keep wage growth as small as possible. Use lower cost (and often lower quality) materials and processes. What this leads to is an economy which demands that people making less money buy more stuff, and that leads to the culture of debt that helped get us into our current economic debt.

At some level, this is the same dilemma Americans face with respect to food consumption. We have evolved in an environment of scarcity, where it made sense to take advantage of plenty. Consume as many calories as are available. Make as much money as possible. Acquire as many status raising goods as you can (or cannot) afford. Fundamentally, humans are not creatures who are good at imposing voluntary limits on themselves, whether by limiting the size of cities to make them sustainable or not taking that extra serving of french fries.

I don't know how to solve these problems. I am neither a psychologist nor an economist. However, I can think of a starter list of issues that should be addressed.

Our first problem is thinking that ever increasing debt is a way to achieve sustainable growth. Debt used wisely allows people to start businesses, buy homes, and attend college. It can give opportunities to those who would not otherwise have those opportunities. However, we have become a people dependent on debt to get by from month to month. This means that our level of spending, the level of spending businesses depend upon to grow, is unsustainable. Eventually debt must be paid off, and that brings this house of cards down.

Second, businesses feel they must grow because of investor pressure. Wall Street's ideal is that that owning stock in a company is a way to make money, not a way to own part of that company. The distinction here is one of attitude rather than mechanism (although the mechanism encourages certain values). Wall Street's attitude is that all stock holders want is to maximize profit (our regulation system reflects this). An ownership attitude would balance the desire to maximize profit with the desire to own a company run consistently with other non-monetary values. This is theoretically possible now, but it is difficult with stock publicly traded in a system wants to maximize profit and growth.

Finally, our economic system lacks flexibility. Our current economic system is set up to make it difficult to deviate from the normal full time job (or multiple jobs) with little vacation and pay varying from unfair to generous some of which you must spend on a car and are expected to eventually spend on a badly designed, overpriced home. For some people, this is a good choice, and that is great.

To opt out of all or part of this system takes dedication and effort and is really only a choice available to the reasonably affluent. Many companies do not allow employees to take additional unpaid vacation. Living outside the heart of the city without a car is nearly impossible. Working part time often requires a career change (and often giving up the idea of having a "career" at all). Iowa farmers who want to grow anything other than corn and soybeans have no where to sell their goods. If is inefficient to allow every choice to everyone, but it is also inefficient to make everyone fit into such a limited number of life roles. Society is a monoculture, and monocultures are rarely healthy.

We need a paradigm shift. Government policies and individual choices act as a catalyst to this process, but ultimately it is the change in attitude, not any particular action, that will cause the large scale changes that are necessary to get ourselves out of this mess.
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Finished Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. The short version: Humans have cognitive biases that affect their decision making. Using what we know about these biases, we can design choice architectures that make it easy for people to make good choices without taking the freedom to choose away from those who want to do so. Thaler and Sunstein describe these principles and give examples of how they can be applied to saving money, health care, and preserving freedoms.

The longer version (blatantly plagiarized from myself) )
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Finished Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. This is, according to reviews, one of the better of the current glut of positive psychology books. This book is high quality because Gilbert does not focus on happiness. He rarely talks about happiness directly. He focuses on cognitive tendencies of human beings and their effects on how people interpret how they feel, remember how they felt, and anticipate how they will feel.

One cognitive trick that reoccurs throughout the book is that the brain summarizes. Memories of the past are not faithful recordings of the events but reconstructions based on a few key points. Observations of the present only gather a small part of the information around. (Side note: it is my opinion that this is why the faddish "law of attraction" seems to work. Focusing on a desire does not change the world, but it does change your perception of the world.)

Summarizing also applies to images of the future (although the exact word choice becomes a little odd). One's predictions tend to focus on a few key points and ignore everything else. For example, most people would feel that they will have a strong and long lasting reaction to the outcome of the next presidential election. Often, people are right about the strength of their reaction, but they are very wrong about the duration. This mistake occurs because predictions of the future leave out the details about the rest of life that tend to very quickly temper your emotions (whether your candidate wins or loses, you will still, for example, have to walk in the rain and will still get to go out to a nice dinner).

That is not all there is to this. Although people tend to over estimate their future happiness or unhappiness, the strength of their anticipation tends to color how they remember an event. Thus, if you think you will feel some amount of happiness from event and you actually feel some different amount, the amount of happiness you remember feeling will be somewhere between the two.

Gilbert does not give happiness tips, but I will take a stab at using his observations to analyze some common happiness tips. Consider the following (seemingly inconsistent) tips: live in the moment, look forward to the future, do not worry too much about the future, do not dwell on the past, cherish your happy memories. If you compare these tips with what we know about the mind, you can start to see why they all can help. Focusing on the moment raises the happiness you actually experience. Anticipation raises the happiness you will remember having experienced. Remembering past experiences provides material for your mind to use when it is making predictions about the future, so focusing on the happy memories will help you to anticipate that similar future events will bring happiness.

This book does not pretend to have all the answers. Instead, it focuses on helping you to understand how the human mind works. With these tools, you can begin to understand why certain bits of common wisdom on happiness work and why they sometimes fail. And, if you are like me, just knowing that makes you a little bit happier.
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An interesting article on how amongst those who cheat, those who see themselves as morally superior cheat the worst. The basic idea is that those who feel morally superior and see something such as cheating as sometimes okay are more likely to claim the ends as justifying the means (e.g., if I cheat on this test I can get into med school and become a doctor and help people). Those who view themselves as morally superior and think cheating always wrong cheat the least.

The article reminds me of some programmers I have worked with. The people I have worked with who ignore things like the programming style guide just because they dislike the choices made there are also some of the most brilliant people I have worked with. They justify themselves by saying that their way has always worked for them and is therefore strictly better. Now, these are not exactly moral questions, but it seems like a similar principle. For better or for worse, many people who see themselves as superior have a tendency to see only their own ends and do what they need to justify them.
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Finished Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (now a professor at CGU). Flow is a concept extensively researched by Csikszentmihalyi (maybe I'll just say "the author"). It is the state that one gets into when one is concentrating and focused. Flow is a product of an organized consciousness.

The book starts by looking at happiness. Study participants report themselves to be happier when they have been in a state of flow. (One consequence of this is that, in general, people have more positive experiences when working than during their leisure time.) Happiness is more often caused by situations that cause enjoyment than those that cause pleausre. Pleasure is what one feels when fufilling biological or psychological needs. Enjoyment is what one feels when one is actively creating a positive experience that goes beyond just fufilling needs. One activity can have elements of both; a food lover may feel pleasure eating (because eating satisfies hunger) and enjoyment (because the food lover appreciates the meal as an experience).

Having concluded that happiness is often caused by being in the state of flow, the author details elements of the flow experience:

  • A challenging activity that requires skills. Flow experiences are often seen as enjoyable because they are challenging. One has to concentrate and use skills that are not used in day to day experience.

  • The merging of action and awareness. Action may feel effortless when one is in a flow state. The experience is the center of activity, so one does not think about the difficulty of what one is doing.

  • Clear goals and feedback. Games and sports are common flow activites. One reason for this is that they have clearly defined goals and provide ample feedback. Having clear goals and feedback helps prevent one from becoming frustrated or bored.

  • Concentration on the task at hand. People in a state of flow are concentrating on their task to the exclusion of day to day concerns. That explains why I am so absent minded!

  • The paradox of control. People in a state of flow do not worry about losing control. This does not mean that they are reckless. A rock climber in a state of flow is aware of how every action affects their safety. They just are confident that they can prevent failure. This is called a paradox because it occurs in situations where, in some ways, one has less control because the situation is governed by rules or otherwise restricted.

  • The loss of self-consciousness. Being in a state of flow results in a concept of one's self that is more complex. During the flow experience, however, one's self-consciousness decreases. Instead of concentrating on oneself, one concentrates on the activity at hand.

  • The transformation of time. During a flow experience, time may seem to go quickly or slowly. Time may seem to go quickly while one is lost in the flow, but at moments when concentration is most vital it may seem to slow down so that one has time to take in every detail.

The rest of book describes different experiences that can cause the flow state. There are chapters describing the state of flow as it relates to physical experiences, mental experiences, work, people, and even tragedy. This section of the book contains many examples from various studies.

Csikszentmihalyi's book takes a reasonably rigorous look at an interesting and important psychological phenomenon. Anyone who has seen the term "flow" bandied around on the internet and wondered if it was a well founded concept would do well to read this book.


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Erika RS

May 2012

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