Thursday, March 17, 2011

Decisions, decisions

Coming to you live from a lounge chair in Jamaica. I just finished “How We Decide,” a great read by Jonah Lehrer. I have a few criticisms, (we’ll get to that later) but what I loved about it was Lehrer’s comprehensive assessment of a wide range of scholarly work straddling neuroscience and psychology and his ability to present it in a very approachable style. (Go figure. My PhD is in Neuroscience, but was done in a Psychology department.) Lehrer makes a compelling argument, based on numerous citations of scientific experiments, for why we need to reexamine our preoccupation with the view set forth by early philosophers that the “rational mind” should guide our decisions, and that our emotions just get in the way of an otherwise detached, data-based, dispassionate process. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Lehrer details how the data show that the “rational centers” of the brain are easily overwhelmed in making decisions based on complex datasets because they can only process a limited set of distinct datapoints at a time, whereas the “emotional centers” are massively parallel and can process lots of competing data simultaneously. Consequently, the argument is that when making complex decisions, our emotions guide better choices than our rationality, but we typically try to overrule emotional decisions with logic. I won't restate the entire argument here, but if you don't believe me, read the book.

It got me thinking about executive search. Choosing a new team member is like choosing a spouse. There are simply too many variables to process at once. If you agree with Lehrer’s assessment of the current research on decision making (and it’s kinda hard not to), these are decisions that shouldn’t be made purely rationally. Sure, all the candidates have to check off all the boxes of the core requirements for the position, but after that, it gets down to deciding who will be the best fit with the existing team, or who will bring to the team the missing elements that one seeks. These are largely “gut” decisions. Too often, though, I see clients almost embarrassed to admit that one candidate “just feels right” – they think that the decision should be made logically, rationally, dispassionately. This is where I want all my clients to read the book, and be convinced that sometimes they just need to trust their instincts. It’s also (in a completely self-serving comment) why you should always use a professional to help you work through these tough decisions and point out where you may be literally overthinking the decision.

As for my complaints about the book? One big one and one tiny one. Lehrer talks about the different “centers” or nuclei of the brain as if they are independently functioning units. It borders on a homunculus argument (“This is just what the prefrontal cortex does when faced with a decision.” p. 111). Back in Donald Stein’s lab at Clark University some 20 years ago, we were leading the charge against a reductionistic approach to brain science. The prevailing wisdom was that these anatomical structures defined discrete functional brain systems. There are, in fact, some brain areas that, for all intents and purposes, are “centers” of one or another function. (The occipital cortex is virtually exclusively devoted to vision.) However, in experimentally induced or naturally occurring damage to these “centers,” we can see the remarkable plasticity and adaptability of this infinitely complex organ. The brain is an incomprehensible network of networks, feedback and feed-forward loops, parallel processes and pathways that is in a constant state of flux. I completely understand that for a lay audience it’s much easier to attribute to these structures a certain amount of autonomy, but I wish Lehrer had made some kind of disclaimer that he was doing so only for convenience. I fear that the book will contribute to the popularity of a conceptual framework that, at this point, seems (and is) outdated.

The second is a pet peeve. Sorry for being such a grammar Nazi, but it’s “data are,” not “data is.”