The other day I was standing in line at Kinko’s (I know it’s technically FedEx Office nowadays, but I find it hard to let go of the brand name – like Kleenex for tissues, or Google for any websearch). I was waiting for the guy to finish helping the lady in front of me, and Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide caught my eye. I picked it up on an impulse and after quickly scanning the back cover, I knew I wanted it. I impulse bought a book on decision-making. Talk about ironic.
As Lehrer goes into detail in the book, our apparently “rational” decision-making mind is actually finely tuned by emotional responses. As we experience more and more things in our life and make decisions, our dopamine neurons are programmed to anticipate what will happen next. We get a little burst of enjoyment if our expectations are fulfilled. Somehow just by looking at the book and scanning the back cover I knew I wanted it and I would like the book. My highly trained dopamine neurons told me to buy it. Only now looking back, I can rationalize the dopamine neuron’s reasoning, which may or may not be what triggered the response in the first place.
What was it about the book that made me decide to buy it? It is visually pleasing, with a simple cover, and pictures of ice cream on the front. The cover also tells me that it is a New York Times Best Seller, which gives me certain expectations about the quality. The back cover also tells me that it is “Smart,” “Entertaining,” and “Fascinating.” From a quick scan I can tell that the book is about neuroscience, which is a topic that interests me, and Jonah Lehrer is some sort of neuroscience expert, disseminating the information to the masses through his book and as a contributing editor at Wired. This means I will probably find the book easier to read and understand than if some PhD lecturer wrote it. I also like the magazine Wired, and find the content hip and informative, meaning that Lehrer’s writing style is probably hip and informative as well. Finally, there is a picture of Lehrer on the back cover. I find him attractive. These are the reasons I can articulate now for why I decided within three seconds that I wanted the book. My brain computes emotion a lot faster than I can reason.
What is interesting is that I could have easily talked myself out of buying the book. I didn’t need to spend $14.95 right then, when I was at Kinkos to make a couple $.10 cent copies. Who is this Lehrer guy anyways? Maybe I should read some reviews on Amazon before I buy the book. I should be saving money and not buying more books (I have about 10 books I read at a time). But I followed my intuition and didn’t second guess my decision. Or maybe I can easily rationalize any decision my dopamine neurons make. I am a lawyer after all.
In the section on morality, Lehrer discusses psychopaths and how they lack emotion to guide their moral compass. Most people’s morals are guided by emotion, and only after they’ve made the decision do they rationalize it.
“When it comes to making ethical decisions, human rationality isn’t a scientist, it’s a lawyer. This inner attorney gathers bits of evidence, post hoc justifications, and pithy rhetoric in order to make the automatic reaction seem reasonable. But this reasonableness if just a facade, an elaborate self-delusion.” (pg. 173).
What does this say about me? I’ve always said that I could justify anything. How are my moral systems in my brain so mushy that I can rationalize in either direction so easily? When confronted with a moral dilemma I do have a gut feeling and intuition (I’m not a psychopath after all), but as a lawyer, my morals can be bought, currently at $225/hour.
And this is where attorneys get a bad rap. Attorneys are seen as greedy, selling out to the highest bidder. They lack all compassion for what’s right and wrong, and can justify anything. But maybe some attorneys, the ones who can easily argue both sides, are so successful because they ARE compassionate. If what Lehrer says is true, I can easily argue both sides of the coin because I connect with people, am emotional, and can put myself in their shoes. My mirror neurons are highly developed, helping me theorize what’s going on in others’ minds. Attorneys who can argue both sides easily, who seem to have no moral compass, actually are just more compassionate about others. Maybe it’s time people recognize this.