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The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making (Edited by Valerie F. Reyna and Vivian Zayas) explores the neurological, psychological, and sociocultural factors that affect our decision-making, and their implications. The book is a compilation of chapters, written by numerous psychologists and neuroscientists, which provide a comprehensive interdisciplinary overview of the neuroscientific theories behind decision making – an unusual approach to the topic.
The book is divided into three sections. The first covers neuroeconomics, which seeks to explain the way the brain makes decisions based on psychological and economic theories, such as risk preferences and framing effects. The book then moves on to neurodevelopment – how risky decision making changes from childhood to adolescence, and then from adulthood to old age (i.e., maturity and experience-based changes in the brain). The final section covers influential research in neurospsychology and individual differences, such as the “marshmallow test” as a predictor of future success.
The book incorporates evidence from the brain to support claims about social or cultural decision making in a fairly satisfying way. For example, the book explains the reasons behind why an adolescent would be more likely to try a friend’s cigarette, claiming that it isn’t just the environmental factors and peer pressure, but that the adolescent brain is more biased towards rewards (in this case, looking “cool”). This can lead them to make more risky decisions, such as trying drugs and alcohol, or even committing crimes. This is then linked to the juvenile justice system, with suggestions on how information about the adolescent brain can and should be used to inform judicial decisions and rehabilitation of youth offenders. By combining adolescent brain development with social factors, the book offers a balanced understanding of teenagers and some of the reasons behind their sometimes dangerous behaviour.
However, the book relies heavily on decision-making studies in a laboratory. It assumes that all of the studies cited (and there are a lot of them) can accurately predict and reflect real world decision-making. Because of the variability in individual differences and the intuitions we possess, I was not persuaded that using laboratory studies as proof of real-life application is the way to improve our understanding of decision-making. Furthermore, the chapters seem slightly disjointed, and there is not much obvious connection between them. Additionally, there seems to be little connection between the sections, and the book leaves the reader a little lost as to how all this information comes together.
Yet the book does provide a succinct overview of some viewpoints and theories, and the claims that are made are backed substantially. The book shouldn’t be treated as an empirical source, however, as further secondary reading of many of the studies and works cited will be required for a;l but the most well-read of psychologists. Overall, though, the book provides an alternate perspective to the traditional economist’s view of decision making, which is largely based on risk and probability; whether you are reading this book as a behavioural economist, psychologist, neuroscientist or casual reader, you’re bound to learn something.
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