The Importance of Thinking about Thinking

A review of How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

I play Magic. It’s a fairly complicated card game which calls on many of the same skills needed for games like chess or poker. Poker has suits, Magic has colors. And I hate playing black. Unlike other colors, when I play a black card I often have to sacrifice a few of my life points or one of my other cards. Good players know that this instinctually painful cost is often negligible compared to the positive effects of the card. But my gut reaction is still a big knee jerk “NO!”

I’m suffering loss aversion and I would be well-served to pause and analyze the situation.

Magic isn’t my only bit of nerdom. My partner and I play a lot of games. We host regular game nights and play just the two of us several times a week. His favorites are German-style board games which rely heavily on strategy and resource management. After a game, he and some of his friends will often point out which decisions were likely the most pivotal in the outcome. It always seemed placating to me, an emotional self-defense justification for not winning, but he insisted that studying your mistakes is the best way to learn.

What’s all this got to do with libraries? Well, the only way to avoid loss aversion is to know about it. To know when to trust your instincts and when to doubt them you need to spend a lot of time thinking about how you think. And it turns out the best way to become an expert at something is to spend a lot of time studying your mistakes. These are the first of several lessons in Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide that immediately made me think of current library hot topics like “transparency” and “perpetual beta.”

In How We Decide, Lehrer spends a lot of time talking about experts in high tension situations, but there’s still plenty that can be applied to the library, which is what I’ll be doing with the remainder of this post. In the interest of full disclosure, I was not drawn to this book on my own as I was with Made to Stick. This review is the result of a request from fellow Lead Piper Brett Bonfield. (Yes, we do take requests for post topics, or at least I do.) Its relevance to libraries didn’t jump out at me as immediately as Made to Stick‘s did, but it did give me many ideas for my interpersonal relations, both at work and at home. For one, I’ll be asking my partner to help me study my gaming mistakes more often.

I was particularly impressed with the quality of the writing in How We Decide. It opens with a detailed first person narrative of Lehrer’s experience piloting a Boeing 737 over Tokyo when one of the engines catches on fire. It turns out to have been a flight simulator, but you’re already hooked. Lehrer continues to introduce a number of incredibly engaging professional scenarios and scientific studies and repeatedly calls back to them to reinforce his ideas. He seamlessly jumps between analogy, example, research study, and overarching theory. His main argument is that the age-old dichotomy between the rational and emotional sides of the brain is not only false, but destructive. His overall advice is to think about why you’re feeling what you’re feeling, to think about thinking and become a student of your errors. In that very first story Lehrer pulls you into an emotional state then takes you back through the experience to try something different, which is exactly what he continues to ask of you throughout the book.

Your emotions are super smart, if you train them

Lehrer explains that conscious thought is only a small part of what the brain does. Our orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for integrating much of our subconscious analysis into our decision making process. The orbitofrontal cortex “connects the feelings generated by the “primitive” brain—areas like the brain stem and the amygdala, which is in the limbic system—to the stream of conscious thought” (p. 18). These feelings are actually a summary of data processed by our subconscious, transmitted to our orbitofrontal cortex and interpreted as an instinct or gut reaction. It often provides a highly accurate shortcut to a drawn out conscious analysis. What makes expert chess, poker, and football players able to trust their instincts is that their instincts are finely tuned by a constant focus on mistakes. These players know that “self-criticism is the secret to self-improvement; negative feedback is the best kind” (p. 51).

While I’m not suggesting you point out every mistake each of your colleagues or students makes, I would propose you try it on yourself and encourage it in others. We already know that students learn better when they are active participants in the learning process as opposed to passive recipients of information. We can insert that active learning even earlier in our instruction process by moving from having students apply what we’ve just shown them to having them reason through and come up with the solution on their own.

Taking it one step further than merely analyzing our mistakes, Lehrer argues that mistakes aren’t things to be discouraged: they should be cultivated and carefully investigated. A crucial ingredient in education is the ability to learn from mistakes. This grabbed me both from an instruction standpoint—we should be cultivating those critical thinking skills—and from the idea of perpetual beta. I think a valuable question worth asking is, “will it take more time and effort to set up a committee to evaluate every possible scenario before launching a new service or to troubleshoot after?” The answer will definitely not be the same for every situation, but look for opportunities to jump in and learn as you go.

Lehrer explains a study by Carol Dweck which shows in startling statistics how important it is to cultivate an attitude of learning through analyzing our mistakes. Dweck had 400 fifth-graders take a puzzle test. The children were given their scores and praise in the form of one of the following two sentences: “You must be smart at this” or “You must have worked really hard.” The children were then offered the choice to attempt a of set of puzzles similar to the ones they had just taken or a set that were more difficult, but from which they would learn a lot. Dweck expected the different forms of praise to have a modest effect, but the results were dramatic. The children praised for their effort nearly all chose the harder test while those praised for their intelligence went for the easy one. Later, when given a test written for eighth-graders the children in the hard-working group were excited by the challenge while the smart group became easily discouraged. The last set of tests were the same difficulty as the first. The hard workers saw an average score increase of 30% while the smart group’s scores dropped by nearly 20%.

“Instead of praising kids for trying hard, teachers typically praise them for their innate intelligence (being smart). Dweck has shown this type of encouragement actually backfires, since it leads students to see mistakes as signs of stupidity and not as building blocks of knowledge. The regrettable outcome is that kids never learn how to learn…. The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the “smart” compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail” (p. 52-53).

Often times at the reference desk we are as much counselor as information specialist. After much conscious effort, I have gotten better at verbalizing my search strategy as I work with students. One of the benefits has been helping students learn that for more complicated topics refining your search terms is often an iterative process. I remember working with a student on a particularly finicky subject. The fact that I (the expert) did a search and got zero results, then tried again with a different term, and again with a third phrase before hitting on something that got us usable articles, was validating and enlightening for the student. She went from feeling stupid for not knowing the right magic word to learning a process she’ll be able to apply to every search in the future. It’s not about being smart, it’s about making the effort and learning from the failures.

Your emotions will also sabotage you

Many of our gut reactions are actually our vast amounts of experience (learned from mistakes) processed by our subconscious and passed up to our conscious mind via emotion. But we all know that we can’t always trust these instincts. Lehrer covers the most common cases where our emotions lead us astray. One example is the loss aversion I mentioned at the beginning of this post. We put more weight on bad than good. Lehrer states that, “in marital interactions, it generally takes at least five kind comments to compensate for one critical comment” (p. 81). The only way to avoid loss aversion is to know about it.

The way to regulate our emotions is to think about them. “If the particular feeling makes no sense … then it can be discounted” (p. 107). Lehrer suggests that you consciously question your emotions. Think about why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. You may still go with your instincts, but by taking the time to think it through you may just catch yourself falling into a trap.

“Patients who have undergone cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of talk therapy designed to reveal innate biases and distortions of the human brain, have also been shown to be less vulnerable to these same biases. Scientists speculate that these patients have learned to recognize those maladaptive thoughts and emotions that automatically occur in the responses to certain situations. Because they reflect on their thought processes, they learn to think better” (p. 242).

This message really struck home with me. Knowing you’re being irrational is only the first half of overcoming a misguided emotion. The second half is knowing why. While I wasn’t calling my hatred for black Magic cards “loss aversion,” I did realize I was being irrational. I knew the better players knew more than I did, and I trusted that they had a more appropriate sense of which cards were better and worse. But learning that this is a typical reaction and, more importantly, understanding why it is a typical reaction, pushed me over the top from trusting the better players to actually “getting it” myself.

The importance of regulating our emotional responses struck me especially for its use in interpersonal relations—our dealings with our colleagues, our managers, our staff, and our students. Lehrer includes a great quote from Aristotle, “Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy” (p. 107). This bit of advice was well timed for me. I had been getting more and more stressed at work over the course of a few weeks. I knew I needed to address it, but hadn’t decided how. In the end I realized I was taking too much personal responsibility for something that I shouldn’t have. That realization allowed me to actively decide where I wanted to continue to be involved and where I would choose not to invest my emotional energy. When you have a strong emotional reaction to something or someone, think about why you are so upset. Often realizing exactly why you are having a strong emotional reaction is enough to give you the tools to deal with the issue.

Relying solely on rational thought will also sabotage you

For starters, that’s how professional athletes crack under pressure and experienced performers freeze on stage—by thinking too hard about things that are typically automatic. ((Rachel Slough pointed out that Barry Green’s Inner Game of Music also supports this idea in the “performance” context–and that under pressure we tend to become overly critical.)) Lehrer’s tip—don’t think of the details of what you’re doing, but instead think of a descriptive adjective, words like smooth or balanced, that evokes your overall goal.

Choking isn’t the only danger of thinking too much. You’re also in danger of overloading yourself. You have a limited amount of working memory. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for active analysis and decision making, can only handle so much information at one time. I was interested but not overly surprised to read that a bad mood is a rundown prefrontal cortex.  That’s all the more reason to make sure to regularly take time to yourself and especially to take the extra time to clear your thoughts before sending that impassioned email.

Lehrer explains how our rationality can become a liability, “since it allows us to justify practically any belief” (p. 206). He cites studies where republicans misremember the deficit under Clinton, Christians chose not to push the button to alleviate static over an atheist broadcast, Israeli intelligence disregarded its own information leading up to the Yom Kippur War, and pundits on both sides consistently showed correlation between high confidence levels and incorrect predictions. In all of these situations each group was mislead by its own certainty and ignored contradicting evidence.

Lehrer argues that, “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” (p. 217). In addition to working to develop our own internal dialog, “we can create decision-making environments that help us better entertain competing hypotheses” (p. 217). Abraham Lincoln is famous for his cabinet full of rival politicians. His ability to tolerate dissent and foster diversity was an enormous asset. He encouraged vigorous debate and discussion before making any decisions. Airlines have implemented a highly effective decision making strategy called Cockpit Resource Management (CRM). They discovered that many errors were at least partially due to the “God-like certainty” of pilots. “The goal of CRM was to create an environment in which a diversity of viewpoints was freely shared” (p. 253). Hospitals have also adopted CRM with great results. ((“Before CRM training, only around 21 percent of all cardiac surgeries and cardiac catheterizations were classified as “uneventful cases,” meaning that nothing had gone wrong. After CRM training, however, the number of “uneventful cases” rose to 62 percent.” (p. 255) ))

“The reason CRM is so effective is that it encourages flight crews and surgical teams to think together. It deters certainty and stimulates debate. In this sense, CRM creates the ideal atmosphere for good decision-making, in which a diversity of opinions is openly shared. The evidence is looked at from multiple angles, and new alternatives are considered. Such a process not only prevents mistakes but also leads to startling new insights” (p. 255).

While it would be wonderful if we all worked in supportive, collaborative environments where constructive criticism and active dialogs were encouraged, the truth is that it takes a lot of effort to create and maintain that atmosphere. Anyone can take the first steps. I am particularly excited to have our E-Resources Librarian as my partner on the student technology use survey my library will be doing this semester. I know that I have a definite bias towards looking out for those left on the far side of the digital divide so her focus on technology integration provides an excellent balance.

Lehrer suggests being your own devil’s advocate. This is another place where you may be able to look for additional external substitutes. When we were working on our pitch for the student technology survey we wanted to be ready for any question library management might throw at us, but we weren’t entirely sure what those would be. Our college has an internal grant proposal process. By completing the grant proposal we were prepared to answer questions about goals, objectives, timeline, budget, and how the project tied in to the library and college mission. We didn’t win the grant, but management approved and funded our project.

A brief aside

After explaining how our emotions can stand in for our experience, and when they shouldn’t, Lehrer concludes that how we decide should depend on what we’re deciding. But before detailing his final conclusions he explores morality. Moral decisions are unique in that they require the brain to take other people into account rather than act on purely selfish motives. Moral decisions are strongly based in sympathy. It’s part of the reason we are more moved by the plight of one child than by statistics about millions. Statistics don’t activate our moral emotions. It’s also why my college’s I Am ACC campaign is so much more moving than a list of statistics about the importance of community colleges.

At this point I do want to warn any sensitive readers—and I include myself in this group—there are some upsetting animal studies described in Lehrer’s section on morality. If you’d like to avoid them I suggest you skip about 3-5 paragraphs (sometimes more) any time monkeys are brought into the discussion. You won’t miss the gist of the lesson and there are compelling (and less graphic) human stories that still back up the message.

Deciding how to decide

Throughout the book Lehrer repeatedly emphasizes that the most important thing is to think about how you’re thinking and study your decision making process so you can learn to make better decisions over time. Make an effort to see the situation as it is, not as you want it to be. I’ve run into a related statement at faculty gatherings at my college that has really stuck with me: Teach the students you have, not the ones you wish you had. In my community college we are seeing more and more students who are less and less prepared to do college level work. I often hear disparaging remarks towards the K12 system or pining for the academic rigor of the past. But just as often I hear faculty explain how proud they are that so many more students who wouldn’t have considered college a possibility in the past are now enrolling. These faculty challenge us to do everything in our power to meet students wherever they are along their path of educational development and help them reach their personal goals—which may or may not be a four-year institution.

Lehrer closes with an analysis on how to put all of this science to practical use in your life. If you have significant experience in the domain in question (your own personal preferences fall into this category), even if it is a highly complicated issue, you’re best served by collecting all the relevant information, then setting it aside and letting your subconscious decide. For all other situations you should at least question, and possibly ignore, your emotions. They’re particularly dangerous in situations that you’ve never encountered before. “Emotions are adept at finding patterns based on experience… but when you encounter a problem you’ve never experienced before, when your dopamine nuerons have no idea what to do, it’s essential that you try to tune out your feelings” (p. 128).


While not covered in the book, one of the strongest lessons I took from it was the importance of how, when, and from whom you hear a particular message. As I read through this book I kept running into things I had been told before, but had dismissed initially. My partner had explained the importance of dissecting your plays in order to improve, but I thought he was just trying to make me feel better whenever he pointed out certain things were chance. My mother (a psychologist) had suggested I try to identify the reason behind the particular emotional reactions that were triggering my stress, but in the moment I was worked up enough that I didn’t see how that could possibly help. The next day when I read the same advice in Lehrer’s book it clicked. (I called Mom to share the laugh. ((On a related note, I remember learning about emotions in elementary school and being told that we choose our reactions. No one can “make you” angry/happy/sad. I refused to believe this until after college. In that same call my mom reminded me of another helpful way to phrase the same thought, “Don’t give anyone that kind of power over you.”))) It’s impossible to be calm and rational all the time, but by being aware of potential cognitive biases, we can more easily recognize when we are falling prey to them and incorporate good advice when we are calm enough to take it in.

Study Questions

Lehrer’s final message is another call to think about thinking and to become a student of your errors. My personal goal this year has been to focus on improving my teaching, so this semester I’ll be applying that lesson to my instruction sessions by writing out my reflections after each class. Here are some suggestions for other areas to focus on, based on the studies Lehrer describes.

  • Can you find places in your teaching to let students try something on their own without instruction, help them verbalize what did and didn’t work, and allow them to try to come up with reasons why?
  • Can you set aside time after your sessions to critique your own teaching? Or after a program to critique the planning process or the execution? Or after a year purchasing for a new fund area or interacting with new faculty? What worked, what didn’t, what will you do differently? What are some of the other things that you do often that could benefit from reflection?
  • How can we encourage ourselves and our students to see mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failures? Can we work encouragement and instruction into the zero results pages of our catalogs? What can we do to help mold our workplaces into environments where we encourage sharing our failures and our learning process as much as we encourage sharing our successes?
  • Are there people you can partner with in your institution that can help balance any of the biases you know you bring to the table? Are there other resources you can use as your own devil’s advocate?

Thanks to Brett Bonfield for the book recommendation and edits and to Kim Leeder and Rachel Slough their feedback and edits.

7 Responses

  1. I first read about Lehrer’s book when Joe Posnanski, a writer for Sports Illustrated, reviewed it on his blog. He summarized Lehrer’s description of an experiment comparing rats to Yale students that reminded me of my experiences providing reference services to students at another Ivy League university:

    Scientists put rats in a T-shaped maze and put food at one of the top corners of the T. They put the food on the left side 60 percent of the time and food on the right side 40 percent of the time. What they found is that once the rats realized that the food was on the left more often, they ALWAYS went left, figuring in their own rat minds that more often than not, they would get food.

    But when they did a similar experiment with Yale undergraduates — I’m not sure what they use as a reward for Yale undergraduates — barbecued Fritos? — they found something else. The students also came to realize that the reward was on the left most of the time, but they tried to figure out the pattern. There WAS no pattern, but their brains simply could accept that and so instead of going left and simply getting the reward 60 percent of the time, they tried to outsmart the system. And so they only ended up with the reward 52% of the time. As Lehrer says — outsmarted by rats.

    Maybe this explains why the same brilliant, high achieving students and faculty members were repeatedly frustrated by pretty similar searches. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to get to or use Business Source Premier or Factiva or the various execrable Thomson Reuters databases — they just didn’t believe the cheese could be found in the same place over and over again.

    At least that’s one explanation. It’s also possible they were after real cheese and often the best we had to offer was Velveeta.

    1. Thanks again for the recommendation Brett. I think we have plenty of real cheese. It’s just all in that obnoxious blister packaging that can’t be opened without industrial scissors ;)

  2. Oh, the hours I spent playing Magic (I preferred blue).

    If there’s one thing I learned from four years of art school, it was how to take negative feedback and learn from it. It’s something that I’ve learned (the hard way) that most people don’t have. They take negative criticism as attacks, but you can only go so far with “that’s great”.

    The thinking about/analyzing your emotions section is very similar to what I’ve been reading in some books on Zen (particularly by Brad Warner).

    1. My favorite deck is a red/white one.

      I really appreciate constructive criticism. Film school really grilled in its necessity for me. Everyone was a bit overly nice though. I never had to deal with actual negativity.

      I even noticed myself fighting my instant rebuttals doing the rewrites on this article. :)

  3. Hilary Davis

    Thanks for this post, Ellie – it was a nice break away from the constant momentum of work! And a great reminder to reflect on why we do the things we do the way we do them. It reminds me of a LLAMA webinar I attended last year with Pat Wagner as the presenter. She focused on the importance of reflecting on why plans fail and encouraged asking hard questions when bad things happen to our well-intentioned plans. Her advice for any major project was to build in time and money for reflection, getting everyone on board, giving people time to think, ask questions, take breaks, celebrate small successes along the way, repair from getting burned out, and limit doing work under crisis to minimize mistakes. In another LLAMA webinar, also led by Pat Wagner, she discussed decision-making strategies and focused on what she called ways to “neutralize data for decision-making.” She described using “graphic models” (grids and T-bars) to avoid cognitive bias. In group settings, she recommended setting up a T-bar chart on a whiteboard so that everyone can keep track of what’s been discussed (and avoid redundant comments) with costs of making a certain decision on one side and benefits of making a certain decision on the other side. Start with the negatives (costs) first to allow the criticisms to be aired, then go through and list benefits without making value judgments yet on either costs or benefits. Then, weigh the results before deciding, making sure to distinguish between facts and opinions. How often do we actually use a cost/benefit ratio when making group decisions or individual decisions? This post gives us concrete examples of how we can make better decisions and I’d recommend this post to anyone thinking about how to develop better personal or professional leadership skills.