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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Emotion and Reason: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Decision Making by Alain Berthoz, translated by Giselle Weiss (Oxford University Press) (Papercover) It is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance. (Charles Darwin) We need to completely change, and perhaps even reverse, the way we think about making decisions. We are emerging from a century dominated by the power of reason. As the sine qua non of science, reason allowed us to discover the fundamental properties of matter and, armed with technology, to transplant the heart, symbol of love, from one chest to another. Reason brought us the moon, favoured muse of poets, and soon it will take us to Mars. Even now reason is enabling us to probe the brain—that extraordinary product of evolution—for the neural basis of the most sophisticated workings of cog­nition. It was reason that removed the demons believed to torment the brains of epileptic children and reason that vindicated the parents of children afflicted with disorders such as autism and schizophrenia—attributed until only recently to psycho­logical trauma—by revealing their genetic origin. Reason underpins our conviction that the decisions our doctors make, like those made by our politicians, are the result of a logical analysis of observable phenomena.
But this rational thinking—arrived from Euphrates by way of Sumer, Jerusalem, Cairo, Athens, and Rome, this curious child of the East and West, of Arabic mathemati­cians and of astronomers from every continent who taught that we can predict the very movements of the planets—cannot be said to be a product of the Age of the Enlightenment. It is stiff and impersonal. It is indifferent to the soft fog of uncertainty; it shields itself from the wonders and vagaries of the imagination, and would have us believe that the world is amenable to reckoning, that the Vietnam War can be won by the Pentagon's computers. More

Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgement and Decision Making by Reid Hastie, Robyn M. Dawes (Sage) In this book, we have attempted to present basic theories and research findings from the field of judgment and decision-making in as nontechnical a way as possible. Students have liked this approach in the classroom and we hope that readers of this book will as well. We have been teaching this material of more than 30 years (15 years for each of us, please) to students at Carnegie Mellon University, University of Colorado, University of Oregon, Northwestern University, and Harvard University. We have found not just that the responses from students are enthusiastic, but that these courses are comparatively more popular with students than any of the other topics that we teach.

Α primary motivation for writing this book is our belief that an understanding of the principles of rational decision making can help people improve the quality of their choices and thus their lives. The material is not only of scholarly interest but practically useful as well. Again, students recognize this potential value and have frequently told us, years after they completed our courses, that what they had learned was useful and made α difference in their everyday life (α greater difference than knowing that their anterior cingulate is part of the mesocortical system or that hebephrenic schizophrenics are the silly ones).

The book is divided into six conceptual sections. Chapters 1 and 2 provide some history and introduce the main themes of rational versus descriptive approaches to judgment and decision making. Chapters 3 through 7 review the psychology of judgment. Chapters 8 and 9 focus on the accuracy and rationality of our habits of judgment. Chapters 10 and 11 review what we know about where our basic values come from and how we make choices when there is little uncertainty about obtaining outcomes but often much uncertainty about how much we will like them. Chapters 12 and 13 review the major theory of rational decision-making, subjective expected utility theory, and the major descriptive psychological theory, prospect theory. The last chapter reviews our major themes and conclusions, with an exhortation to appreciate the positive aspects of living with uncertainty. Finally, the Appendix provides α brief introduction to the concepts from mathematical probability theory that we rely on in earlier chapters.

Throughout the book, we compare basic principles of rationality with actual behavior in making decisions. There is α discrepancy. Moreover, this discrepancy is due not to random errors or mistakes but to automatic and deliberate thought processes that influence how decision problems are conceptualized and how future possibilities in life are evaluated. The overarching argument is that our thinking processes are limited in systematic ways, and we review extensive behavioral research to support this conclusion.

We attempt to present as clearly and forcefully as possible the implications of the research we describe. Subsequent research will doubtless show that some of the conclusions reached in this book are incorrect or that they require modification, but we take the position that research-not anecdotes, not "plausible beliefs," not common sense, and not our everyday experience-should be the basis for understanding and evaluating our decision-making achievements and defeats.

Nevertheless, we have also used anecdotes as α teaching device. Although we believe that anecdotes are of little value in scientific discovery and verification, anecdotes are α powerful way of conveying information and making it understandable, believable, and memorable. We have tried, however, not to reason from anecdotes to conclusions ("My Great-aunt Matilda was once told she had terminal cancer and then went for α walk by the lake on α moonlit night and the cancer went into remission; therefore. . . "); rather, we try to use anecdotes to reinforce the conclusions supported by more substantial theory and research.

The theme of limited cognitive capacity conflicts with our preconceptions about how smart we are. Although many of us are willing to accept the idea that our unconscious (for Freud) or "animal" (for Plato and Aristotle) or "hotheaded" natures may interfere with our reasoning when we are faced with an important decision, the idea that thinking per se is α fundamentally flawed and limited process is an unpleasant one. Moreover, many people rebut the view that thinking is flawed on the grounds that our dominant species status on this planet is related to our cerebral capacity and evidenced by our technologically advanced civilizations. This commonsense argument is flawed in several respects.

First, although evolution is often phrased in terms of the "survival of the fittest," its actual mechanism is better described as "survival of the fitter." Animals that have α higher probability than their competitors of surviving to adulthood and reproducing in α particular environment have α higher probability of dispersing their genes to future generations. Successful animals need not be optimal when compared to some physical or mathematical criterion of optimality, but only "one up" on competing animals and their forebears. Even that comparative superiority is defined relative to the particular demands and survival tasks of an environment. If indeed the human cerebral cortex is responsible for our ascendance over competing species, that does not imply it is the optimal thinking device, just that it is α better one.

Second, our technological development does not attest to the brilliance of our thinking as individual human beings. Rather, it is evidence for the human ability to communicate knowledge within and across generations. Α single human could not have created α map of the human genome sequence, α symphony, or a hydrogen bomb without building on knowledge borrowed and inherited from living others and from the past. Such borrowing involves recognizing what is useful-but recognizing a valuable intellectual result is far easier than creating it. When faced with an important decision in our lives, in contrast, we are often "on our own" to think through what we might do and what are the probable consequences of the behaviors we might choose. And when we must make important social decisions, it is important that we be able to communicate with one another precisely and fluently. (In fact, many of the most convincing success stories told to us by ex-students involve the use of concepts from our courses to clarify and communicate during collaborative decision-making.)

We must also counter the misconception that decision making is important simply because of the vastness of the choices with which we as individuals and as α species are faced today in the modern world. It is true

ι that few of our great-grandparents seriously considered the option of divorce and that few of their political leaders considered risking the annihilation of the human race to achieve an international political objective. Nor were engineers of that day asked to produce energy by constructing complicated plants that could poison vast areas of the earth as α result α single operator's bad judgment. But despite the larger set of options available to us than to our ancestors, our decisions are probably not more difficult than were theirs. We adapt to whatever decisions must be made and to their consequences. Such adaptation is both a blessing (as when an individual in the worst prison camp can experience near ecstasy over eating α single crust of bread or cultivating α single weed) and α curse (as when people who appear to "have it made" adapt to their riches and find themselves on an unsatisfying "hedonic treadmill"). The subjective weight of decision-making has always been α heavy one; philosophers throughout the centuries have discussed the process of decision-making and suggested ways in which it is good or bad. The new knowledge that underlies the field of decision-making is simple principles that define rationality in decision-making and empirical facts about the cognitive limits that lead us not to decide rationally.

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