The science of decision-making

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Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: One of the crucial events in the recent Middle East history, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, crops up in a new book about neuroscience. The book is called �How We Decide�. The author, science writer Jonah Lehrer, spoke to The World's Science correspondent David Kohn, who's here now.

DAVID KOHN: Hey, Marco.

WERMAN: David, explain for us. The Yom Kippur War, in which Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel, what does that have to do with how the human brain works?

KOHN: Well, the war provides an example of what researchers call �the certainty trap�. The certainty trap is just what it sounds like. People generally have trouble questioning their own beliefs. They ignore evidence that goes against their ideas � even when that evidence is overwhelming. And what Jonah Lehrer talks about in the book is that while it's generally believed that the Yom Kippur War started with a surprise attack, that attack shouldn't have surprised the Israelis at all.

JONAH LEHRER: There was all this evidence that the Arab countries surrounding Israel were actually planning an attack. There was a huge buildup on the border in Syria and in Egypt. The Egyptians said this was a training exercise, but there were signs that this training exercise was actually kind of unprecedented. These Soviets had evacuated. There were training advisors. You know, there was one piece of evidence after another that in retrospect seem glaringly obvious that something strange was going on.

KOHN: It was the opposite of the Iraq war in a way � it was like a huge amount of evidence that something was happening?

LEHRER: Exactly. And yet because Israeli intelligence services were convinced � they were certain that they had this theory which they called the �concept�. That the countries wouldn't attack until they had enough air � enough fighter planes especially to counteract the Israeli air superiority. But that wouldn't happen until 1975 or so. So they had all these very good, logical sounding reasons why an invasion wasn't imminent. And those reasons that � those theories which they were so certain of led them to find all sorts of ways of discounting all this evidence which suggested an attack was actually imminent.

KOHN: So the lesson here, or one of the lessons is that you can't be too certain. A certain amount of indecision and questioning and indecisiveness is actually good?

LEHRER: Self-skepticism can be a very, very useful trait. And this is what's so important to become aware of the larger bias at work here, which is that � this goes by the name of cogner-dissidence too, which is that it's not nice to encounter facts that suggest you may be wrong. It suggests this really intricate model which is the basis of your work might actually be completely faulty. So what the human brain naturally tends to do is to ignore, to suppress, to disregard that kind of evidence.

KOHN: Let's go back to the Israeli army for a second. They made this mistake and they ended up not losing this war, although they were very close to losing this war.


KOHN: What did they do after that? They did something to sort of restructure, essentially, their institutional brain?

LEHRER: Yeah, and it's a little counter-intuitive. And it's a very telling contrast with what the American intelligence service did after the failure for 9/11 and after the Iraq war.

KOHN: Right.

LEHRER: Which is what the Israelis said is, �Okay. The problem here was this false consensus,� that everyone was so sure of what they thought was going to happen that the Arabs wouldn't attack that the collective organization, the intelligence service as a whole, ignored all this relevant evidence. So what the Israelis decided to do was to basically come up with a whole new branch of intelligence services which was completely independent from the two pre-existing branches � so from the Israeli CIA and from the NSA. In other words, they created a whole 3rd branch that the sole job of this 3rd branch wasn't to gather more intelligence �cause that clearly wasn't a problem, the Israelis managed to gather all these signals, they just ignored them after the fact. The sole job of this 3rd branch was just simply be an independent source of analysis.

KOHN: It's interesting. I mean, this Obama model that everybody talks about � gather a bunch of dissident voices in your Cabinet and you just let them go.

LEHRER: A team of rivals.

KOHN: The team of rivals. That's sort of what the Israeli Army, or the Israeli government is doing here. That's interesting.

LEHRER: Yeah, you know, I think from the perspective of your brain that's a good idea is to maximize the dissidents, is to have a team of rivals, given especially in these expert situations, one of the big problems is a false consensus, is group think, is you know, this false sense of certainty which when you're living in the bubble of power becomes very tough to puncture.

WERMAN: That was author Jonah Lehrer talking with The World's David Kohn. I love these stories, David, where we interpret big geo-political narratives through the prism of human behavior. We should mention too that you've got a longer interview with Jonah available on your podcast.

KOHN: Yeah. Jonah has a lot to say about the reckless decisions that led to the global financial meltdown, and why � this is fascinating � sometimes it's possible to think too much about decisions.

WERMAN: And Jonah Lehrer is also available to interact with listeners online. That's pretty cool.

KOHN: Yeah. Yeah. We're launching a new interactive forum this week about science. It's a place where you can meet the world's top scientists and science writers like Jonah. And he's going to be our first guest, and we'll be talking about decisions and how we decide stuff.

WERMAN: And remind us how to check out the podcast and the forum, David?

KOHN: It's easy to remember. Just go to, or just

WERMAN: Real simple. Thank you, David. The World's Science correspondent, David Kohn.

KOHN: Thanks, Marco.