decision making | June 27, 2011

Neuroscience Speaker Jonah Lehrer: Don't Rely on Statistics Alone

Watch out sports stat nerds, neuroscience speaker Jonah Lehrer has set his sights on you in his debut article for Grantland. True to form, Lehrer takes a fascinating look at the way our minds make choices—in this case, the increasingly prevalent practice of leaning on math—and turns the tables. He argues that teams, and the people who run them, are ignoring the unmeasurable factors that make for success and are instead falling back on numbers-based performance measurements known as sabermetrics. The result: disappointing teams.

Lehrer says sabermetrics has translated sports into a list of statistics, where coaches and execs, for example, “undervalue the importance of not being an asshole, or having playoff experience, or listening to a coach.” His moral comes to a head with the Dallas Mavericks—this year's NBA champions. On paper, they had no business winning. Nearly every team they beat was “better” but, the Mavs “became more than the sum of their parts. They beat the talent.”

What Lehrer is warning us against is falling into an easy trap. Standardization makes for simplified cross-board comparison shopping—whether you're picking up a new designated hitter or a minivan. He points out how people shop for cars by prioritizing horsepower and fuel economy. Meanwhile, studies have shown real-world satisfaction doesn't hinge on these stats. Car frame, front seat comfort, and dashboard aesthetics actually rank highest. The same goes for sports. “[Teams] are seeking out the safety of math,” says Lehrer. “We end up with teams that are like the worst kind of car. They look good on paper—so much horsepower!—but they fail to satisfy. The dashboard is ugly, the frame squeaks, and the front seats make our ass hurt.”

The story knocks home an important lesson: deciding to ignore instinct and intangibles might make for a great paper equation, but won't guarantee victory. The message fits neatly into Lehrer’s heralded and captivating talks on decision making—particularly how our minds make choices, and how we can improve on those choices.

Read more about neuroscience speaker Jonah Lehrer

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literature | June 26, 2011