Required Reading: Indecisions, Indecisions, Indecisions

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Jonah Lehrer has decided one thing for sure: He simply can't make up his mind. According to the author, a contributing writer to national publications such as The New Yorker and Wired, most decisions don't come as easily. "I would spend half an hour trying to pick out floss," he recalls — and therein lay the motivation for his latest book, How We Decide. Managing Editor Joshua Weinberger and Associate Editor Jessica Tsai spoke with Lehrer about how the surest sign of rational thinking may be the mere awareness of our own irrationality.

CRM magazine: Was this an extension of your first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, or an entirely separate venture? 

Jonah Lehrer: Proust grew out of my interest in the arts and science. This book really grew out of my pathological indecisiveness and curiosity spurred on very much by everyday failings.

For the first time, neuroscience was able to shed a little light on what’s actually happening inside our minds as we make decisions. Neuroscience [for] so long seemed like an abstract science and now in the last couple years, we’re actually able to ask very practical questions that address areas of everyday life. [See “Are You Smarter Than a Neuromarketer?,” Insight, January 2010, for more on neuromarketing.]

CRM: Are you making better decisions?

Lehrer: I’m still very much a work in progress — but, yeah, I’ve gotten a bit better. It’s really about learning to adjust my thought process depending on what I’m thinking about, learning to change my style of decision making depending on the details of the decision I’m making. The fancy word for that is metacognition. It’s really just thinking about thinking, and realizing how we think should depend on what we’re thinking about. 

My favorite metaphor is that the mind is like a Swiss Army knife — it’s got all these different tools, [and each] is very well suited to a particular task in the real world. You want to make sure you choose the right tool at the right time. 

CRM: How do you choose?

Lehrer: That’s obviously the tricky part. Really what you’re doing is becoming a more-sensitive listener to your emotions. There’s a fair amount of evidence that people can do that. The other thing is being able to turn off this constant stream of rationalization…trying to figure out the difference between Crest and Colgate. Now I’m able to say, “Both these toothpastes are going to work, they’ll be just fine. Whatever [the difference] is, that difference can be so tiny, it’s not worth spending 20 minutes trying to figure out.” 

Being aware of all these things that show the rationalization process—searching for reasons—really doesn’t lead to good results. I’m better able to understand the situation in which the rationalization process isn’t rational at all.

CRM: Do you want to be a rational purchaser or a passionate one? 

Lehrer: It depends on the product. [Neuroscientists] often distinguish between easy and hard decisions—such as picking a car or a leather couch, [which] involves lots of variables with lots of information to take into account. In those situations—and this is a little counterintuitive — you actually want to be more emotional [because you’ll] do a better job of processing all that information coming in from outside [your] conscious awareness.

In contrast, [with] easy consumer decisions — when we’re picking something like simple, everyday household products—it’s better to be a bit more rational because there isn’t that much to consider. So if you go with your emotions, you might be led by the nifty Procter & Gamble ad campaign and then spend too much for a brand-name purchase that doesn’t work any better. 

CRM: So — the less the rational distinction between products, the more emotional the marketing has to become?

Lehrer: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The less qualitative difference there is between the actual products, between you and your competition, the more important it becomes to turn the brand into this emotionally resonant thing. It’s all about what neuroscience calls predictive utility — how much pleasure we expect it to give us versus what it actually gives us turns out to be profoundly important. 

The job of marketers, and why they spend so much on advertising, is to change our expectations of a product, our expectations of pleasure; and, sure enough, that actually makes us enjoy it more.

CRM: But what if products are distinguishable and there’s a qualitative difference?

Lehrer: The challenge for consumers is to learn to take that into account and to focus on the important variables. Studies suggest that when people rationalize about complex decisions, they tend to focus on the wrong variables. They’ll obsess over the color of the couch, when in reality there are many more-important things to think about than the color, like whether it looks good in your apartment.

When people use a more-emotional thought process for these complex decisions, they tend to do a better job of picking out which variables are most important. The technical term for this is the “weighing stage.” 

CRM: Will ads stop working once consumers admit that advertising works?

Lehrer: Well, they won’t stop working, but we’ll be able to see through our biases. If we’re spending $25 on a bottle of wine every night, maybe we should do a blind taste test with that $5 bottle of wine. Consumers should be more skeptical of their own preferences.

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