Monday, December 15, 2008

"Don't think, just throw" 

You'll recognize that line from Bull Durham. When it comes to quarterbacks, it might be good advice. Jonah Lehrer explains:
So how do quarterbacks do it? How do they make a decision? It's like asking a baseball player why he decided to swing the bat: the velocity of the game makes thought impossible. What recent research in neuroscience suggests is that quarterbacks choose where to throw the ball by relying on their unconscious brain. Just as a baseball player will decide to swing at a pitch for reasons he can't explain (he' is acting on subliminal cues from the hand of the pitcher), an experienced quarterback picks up defensive details he's not even aware of. Although he doesn't consciously perceive the lurking cornerback, or the blitzing linebacker, the quarterback's unconscious is still able to monitor the movement of these players. And then, when he glances at his receivers, his brain automatically converts these details into a set of fast emotional signals, so that a receiver in tight coverage gets associated with a twinge of fear, while an open man triggers a burst of positive feeling.
Lehrer argues that, while it's unconscious, you can still learn how to do it by being put in realistic situational practice runs. I imagine it's like how you train a fighter pilot (or a good videogamer.) You obviously cannot put them in a lethal plane fight, so you put them in simulators. Lehrer argues convincingly that what we measure to predict performance of a quarterback, say by an intelligence test, completely misses the point.
We've assumed that passing decisions are rational decisions when, in fact, there's nothing rational about them. Obviously, it's a bit more difficult to measure the unconscious, but that doesn't mean it can't be done.
Lehrer also argues about our decisions on what to buy, that it's not just rational. This is discussed in a Newsweek column by Sharon Begley (h/t: my colleague Phil Grossman.)
The brain has distinct circuits for registering that you want something and for recoiling at the price. When a price seems too high, as more and more bargain-crazed consumers are concluding about more and more products, the region that anticipates loss and registers disgust�the insula again�turns on, telling you to move away from the overpriced laptop. With consumers demanding bargains, that activity overwhelms the brain's pleasure-anticipating center, called the nuclear accumbens, which turns on when you see something desirable. The relative power of the insula and the nuclear accumbens determines whether you buy or not. That, in turn, reflects people's temperaments and habits�self-indulgence, compulsive shopping, self-denial and the like�as well as the messages they get from the environment.
I contemplate in thinking about this how we might train our children, our co-workers, or our students to make better economic or financial decisions. If the training-the-quarterback analogy carries to shopping, might we as well use simulations of market processes to teach how to buy the goods or assets that will best use our scarce resources? With kids we play games like Lemonade Tycoon or Minyanland to learn how to use money. More elaborate simulations are created by programs like Junior Achievement. But there are adults who make lousy decisions. Are there games we can use to give them the training they need to "don't think, just buy" smartly?

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