I’ve hit something of a purple patch with books of late, so its time for some brief book reviews. Most of these will concern topics outside my area of expertise, and so I can’t offer anything like a rigorous critique.
My first book is “The Decisive Moment”, by Jonah Lehrer. I blasted through this book in a few evenings back at the hotel during a conference. It made very enjoyable reading. In particular, the author makes very good use of narrative – one is enticed into each chapter with a variety of case studies. Chapter six’s account of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, for example, makes for compulsive reading.
The theme of the book that most resonated with me was the importance of emotion to rationality. Emotions are often thought of as irrational – we see this in expressions like “I let my emotions get the better of me” and the connotations of objectivity attached to the adjective “dispassionate”. I think this goes back at least to Plato. Lehrer, however, shows that emotions do have an important role to play in decision making. They allow for fast, unconscious decisions to be made and implemented. Those who due to brain injuries have seemingly lost the ability to form emotions find that even the smallest decisions – chicken or beef? – paralyse them like Buridan’s ass. Conscious thought can actually lead to worse decisions, as in the case of would-be jam experts (page 138). Those who simply tasted a selection of jams and reported which ones they liked best broadly agreed with the opinions of food experts. Those asked to analyse their impressions via written questionnaires suddenly preferred inferior jams. It’s a beautiful little parable, and Lehrer’s discussion of such examples is both nuanced and insightful.
The book is both practical and philosophical, ranging from how to make better decisions to the most contrived ethical conundrums. Experimental findings and anecdotes are weaved seamlessly. I read the book over a year ago, but looking back over it now makes me want to read it again.