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Does How We Decide Define Us?

Lately, I have been immersed in books about decision-making and intuitive thinking. Jonathon Lehrer’s How We Decide is a great read for those wanting to get a dose of accessible hard science that provides a new perspective on learning and decision-making, at least for us laypeople. Similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, How We Decide describes the process that goes on behind-the-scenes in our minds when we react to situations and make decisions, specifically when they are based on gut-feelings or intuition. Reading these books is like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz as each story explains a different facet of how emotion and reason, working together, dictate how we decide. In Blink, for example, Gladwell starts the book with a story of how several art experts identified the Getty’s purchase of an Egyptian antiquity as a fake within two seconds of seeing it, relying on intuitive feelings. In How We Decide, Lehrer explains how a computer is the world champion in backgammon because it has learned to make decisions by adjusting moves based on mistakes it has made in previous games, just as we do.

As researchers, understanding how we make decisions is crucial to designing survey instruments and synthesizing findings for analysis. What criteria do people weigh in making decisions of what play to attend or what museum exhibit to visit? Are different criteria weighed evenly across a scaled range, or do some rank higher than others? And if they can be ranked differently, can people be ‘defined’ by the different ways in which they make these decisions? In a recent segmentation study for Steppenwolf Theatre Company, we found that theatre-goers are differentiated by their decision processes. Product attributes (casting, title, subject matter) are crucial decision factors for some, but not for others who avoid making decisions entirely by subscribing or relying on a friend’s recommendation. Marketing success hangs in the balance.

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