by Svetlana Grobman, Reference Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune .
“Life is a sum of all your choices.” — Albert Camus
Are you a planner or a go-with-the-flow kind of person? Do you like making decisions, or do you prefer that somebody make them for you? Whatever your answer is—even if it’s “I don’t want to think about it”—the consequences of that decision influence your life in one way or another. Many Internet sites and self-professed gurus would love to tell how you to conduct your life. Yet today, I’d like to bring your attention to people who study our behavior professionally.
One of these people is Dan Ariely, an Israeli-American professor of psychology and behavioral economics and the author of three fascinating books: “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions ”(Harper, 2008), “The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home ” (Harper, 2010) and “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves ” (Harper, 2012). Ariely’s three main points are: 1. We are all irrational and, therefore, we don’t fully understand what’s good for us. 2. In some cases, the irrational course of action can actually be beneficial. 3. We all lie. (Well, some more than others!) Now, you might think Ariely’s books are downers that are irrelevant to our lives. Not at all. All three are highly accessible, even entertaining, and they provide readers with important knowledge about what shapes our decisions and ethics. Also, Ariely concludes that moral reminders can help us curb our future transgressions, so there’s hope for us after all!
Some readers might remember Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking ” (Little, Brown & Co, 2005), which emphasized our capacity to make instant decisions and judgments. These days, though, a new trend is gaining ground, manifesting itself in publications such as Frank Partnoy’s “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay ” (PublicAffairs, 2012). Partnoy says that although we are hard-wired to react quickly, there are serious downsides to instant decision-making, unless it is accompanied by long-term strategic thinking and planning. The author’s claim is backed by solid research across a variety of fields, from behavioral economics and neuroscience to psychology, finance, law and even professional sports. So, next time you make a choice or interact with others, instead of reacting immediately, stretch the time of your response and allow your intuitive and — especially! — rational mind to do its best work.
Another warning about emotional decision-making is presented by John Coates in “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf ” (Penguin Group Inc., 2012). The author, a Cambridge neuroscientist and ex-Wall Street trader, combines his real-world experience and his clinical study of human physiology with a story of Wall Street speculators in action. Coates focuses on financial trading floors, where market jitters can trigger traders’ primitive fight-or-flight responses. This can provoke “irrational exuberance” or “irrational pessimism” and, ultimately, cause market bubbles and crashes. What’s his remedy? Wall Street ought to be regulated.
A stellar accomplishment in the field of behavioral economics is the work of 2002 Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking Fast and Slow ” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). Kahneman organizes his book according to his recent model of thinking, with System 1 being emotional snap judgments and System 2 being slower, deliberative, logical processes. He then explores the consequences of this distinction in different fields, discusses the pros and cons of each, and provides recommendations for improving decision-making by knowing when to use one or the other, or both. If you read only one nonfiction book this year, let it be this one.
Are there other forces that influence our behavior? “Free Will ” (Free Press, 2012) by Sam Harris is an engaging little book — 100 pages in all! — that argues that we have no free will. Everything we think or do—or don’t do—is triggered by causes over which we have no ultimate control. Synapses, neural chemistry, genetic predispositions, environment and past events all contribute to our decision-making. One reviewer commented, “This one” book “will not only unsettle you but make you think deeply. Read it: You have no choice.”
Whether or not we control our decisions, we always strive to execute them, right? Not so fast, says Piers Steel, author of “The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done ” (Harper, 2011). Steel says 95 percent of us delay doing things sometimes, and almost 25 percent do it regularly. Why do we delay? Steel says that procrastination, usually perceived as laziness, is, in fact, an evolutionary feature. Drawing on a variety of sources, he takes his readers through the history of procrastination, highlighting its causes and showing how in modern times, it has become a serious problem that leads to increased health troubles, loss of productivity and unnecessary poverty or depression. On the bright side, Steel describes how we can fight our procrastination tendency and get ourselves back on track. Don’t put off reading this useful and eye-opening book. In fact, don’t put off reading, period! As Ray Bradbury said, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
Those who need a little help starting 2013 on a new note will want to attend the library’s program, “Simple Steps for a New You ,” presented by Jessica Myers at 7 p.m. on Jan. 30.