Thursday, March 25, 2010

#LS2010 Keynote with Jonah Lehrer: How We Decide

My live blogged notes from Thursday’s keynote at Learning Solutions in Orlando.

Heidi’s intro: When our learners are taking courses, they are making decisions about what they are learning…


Lehrer_How_1 Jonah Lehrer author of How We Decide and blogger at The Frontal Cortex.

“Paralysis Analysis” – we get paralyzed by everyday decisions like buying a box of cereal or a tube of toothpaste.

Plato: the way to make decisions is to be as rational as possible. “the human mind is like a chariot with a rationale rider who needs to control the wild horses.” 

Veneration of reason and the denigration of emotion.

We assumed people are rational and this became the basis of modern economics.

What role does emotion play in decision making?

Describes a case study of a guy with a brain tumor in the frontal lobe.  After surgery, Eliot (the patient) had become cold – he could no longer make decisions when he was deprived of emotions.  Pure reason isn’t a gift from the gods – it is a disease.

Emotion changes everything.

How do our emotions come to play in common everyday decisions?  The emotions shaped by education and experience.  How are our emotions shaped by what’s happened in our lives?

“I don’t know how I knew.  I just had this feeling.”  (Michael Riley describing why he decided to fire on an unidentified blip on his radar during the first gulf war.  Nothing on the tapes looked different, but somehow he knew this was an Iraqi plane.  The missiles shot down the plane, saving the USS Missouri from attack.)

Gary Klein – a cognitive psychologist – known for his research on the instincts of firefighters.  He looked at the radar tapes for the previous 6 weeks and saw a very subtle change that triggered something in Michael Riley’s brain.

The role of dopamine.  It’s what makes us like sex, drugs and rock n roll.  Pleasure and reward.  But also helps us recognize patterns. 

If you keep giving the reward, the dopamine stops firing – the brain gets bored with the new before too long.  We get bored and habituate to even the most pleasurable rewards. 

The neurons want to find the first event in time that predicts the reward – dopamine doesn’t care for the reward.  Pattern detection machinery at its core.

“Prediction error signal” – aversive emotion, the negative feeling when the reward doesn’t come.   (The feeling that makes you want to kick the vending machine when the snickers bar doesn’t come out.)

Prediction error software – a really efficient way to learn.

The brain learns by making mistakes.  An expert has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.

The message to kids: “you must be smart” vs. “you worked really hard” – kids praised for trying hard kept trying hard.  They played into idea of themselves as people who try hard.  The kids praised for being smart became afraid to make mistakes.  Kids praised for trying hard end up scoring 30% higher – this changed the way they learned from their mistakes…

Let’s look at planes and pilots

80% safer to travel by plane than by car.

In 1975, 3/4 of plane accidents caused by pilots making bad decisions.

Pilot education was revamped. Chalk and talk really isn’t that effective.  Can teach a pilot what to do, but the lessons remain abstract.  They know what should do, but in that stressful situation the lesson seems far away and pilots struggle to apply…

That’s when FSA decided to invest in flight simulators. 

Pilot error has dropped by 50%.  A lot of credit goes to the sims – pilots make mistakes in the sims --- train brains – they’ve made the necessary prediction errors.  They already know what to do – they’ve already got the requisite feelings there to make decisions.

But the secret to good decision making is not to always trust your gut.

Dopamine agonists – drugs that saturate our brain with dopamine cause gambling addiction. 

The most delicious rewards are the unexpected ones – we get more dopamine – and then we try to predict it. 

Slot machines – over long term they are programmed for you to lose.  But every once in a while you get a big signal, a surprising reward.  Your brain looks for the pattern, but there is none.  You keep getting the surprise.  On dopamine agonists, you’ve lost the ability to override the dopamine.

Metacognition (think about thinking)

Helps you avoid avoidable errors.

Loss aversion (loss feels way worse than gain feels good) – the only way to avoid loss aversion is to know about it.

Can you eavesdrop on your own thoughts?

Think and reflect about where your beliefs come from.  This will help you make better predictions.

The marshmallow test:

Tell kids – you can have one marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes at get two.  20% of kids could wait for two minutes.  The kids who could wait knew how to distract themselves.  To strategically allocate their attention.  So they didn’t stare at the marshmallow.  At 3 1/2 kids can’t do this at all – their brains haven’t developed yet to this.

The marshmallow test turns out to be predictive of later SAT scores, grades, etc.  Why? The same metacognitive skills that make you wait at the age of four are also crucial at 15.

So how do we teach those skills?  With just a little training – a few metacognitive tricks and these kids can now wait. (Show them a video of another kid distracting self and now they can do it.)  Peer modeling of other kids successfully delaying is all it takes to teach kids these skills.

So do these generalize?  Can they apply these lessons to their homework when they’re 12 when you taught them to resist marshmallow at age 4?  Not sure yet…

How can we teach kids how to think about thinking?

The brain is like a swiss army knife with lots of gadgets and techniques.  The key to decision making is to adjust your thinking to the task at hand.


Andrew said...

So, would you recommend the book? It sounds as though you got a lot out of the session, but that's not the same as recommending the presenter's writing. And some books are padded articles.

Cammy Bean said...

Hey Andrew,

I would recommend the book. Lots of interesting examples, presented clearly. No complicated jargon, but very user-friendly. His presentation was essentially a recap of the book.

Andrew said...

Thank Cammy, it's good to have reinforcement for the temptation to buy yet another book!