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The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds


The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

Whether it's baseball, the housing crash or high-speed stock trading, Michael Lewis has a knack for tackling subjects that will enable his readers to see the world through a new lens. Given that talent, he must have felt an inevitable kinship to Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose collaboration on a series of groundbreaking behavioral studies changed forever the way we understand how human beings make decisions.

Lewis' latest work, THE UNDOING PROJECT, is the absorbing story of that collaboration. It's both a highly readable introduction to Kahneman and Tversky's work and a deeply human account of their unlikely and intense relationship, a story of "how two so radically different personalities could find common ground, much less become soul mates."

Lewis' interest in this body of research dates all the way back to a review of his 2003 book, MONEYBALL, by Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein and University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler, who helped popularize Kahneman and Tversky's ideas about how the human mind "functioned when it faced uncertain situations." As Lewis notes, "These ideas had taken some time to seep into the culture, but now they were in the air we breathed. There was a new awareness of the sorts of systematic errors people might make --- and so entire markets might make --- if their judgments were left unchecked."

"Anyone confronting the ideas of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman for the first time through this engaging work is unlikely ever again to think the same way about the complicated phenomenon of how we make up our minds."

Beginning in the late 1960s and extending until approximately 1983, Tversky and Kahneman devised a series of highly original experiments designed to expose the mental shortcuts --- what they called heuristics --- that bias our decision making. Without previous exposure to the Israelis' work, Lewis gave currency to some of these ideas in his account of how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane helped transform the evaluation of baseball talent through the use of analytics. THE UNDOING PROJECT explores how Kahneman and Tversky's insights helped transform fields as disparate as the Israeli military, the health care industry and (thanks to Cass Sunstein) the U.S. school lunch program, and ultimately upended our view of "the pitfalls in the human mind when it was required to render judgments in conditions of uncertainty."

With a generous helping of examples from their research, Lewis patiently traces the evolution of Kahneman and Tversky's theories and the path they took into the culture at large. Among the decision-making deficiencies ruthlessly exposed by this psychological research are our tendency to generalize from small samples (representativeness) or by examples close at hand (availability) and anchoring, illustrated by an experiment that asked its subjects to estimate the percentage of African countries in the United Nations after spinning a wheel of fortune. Subjects who spun a higher number tended to guess a higher percentage, while those who guessed a lower number guessed smaller. Lewis demonstrates, through his concise and yet informative description of the Israeli psychologists' work, how "the rules of thumb people used to evaluate probability led to misjudgments."

THE UNDOING PROJECT is also an intensely human story. Though they both received their undergraduate degrees from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it would be hard to find two such dissimilar scholars. Kahneman, the elder by three years, was a French Holocaust survivor whose father died before his son and wife immigrated in 1946 to what would become the State of Israel two years later. Plagued by self-doubt, his interest in psychology was fueled by his service in the Israel Defense Forces, where he devised personality tests to assess the qualifications of recruits. In contrast, Tversky, a native of Israel and paratrooper in the IDF who received one of the army's highest medals for bravery, was an assertive and charismatic personality. A mathematical psychologist, he had an abiding interest in how people made decisions.

Lewis zestfully describes how these two superficially mismatched men would retreat to a conference room for hours on end, with the only sound coming from the room the echo of their laughter. "They'd become a single mind," Lewis argues, "creating ideas about why people did what they did, and cooking up odd experiments to test them." Beginning with their first paper, "Belief in the Law of Small Numbers," in 1971, they worked a revolution in the field of decision making, culminating in the articulation of what they called "prospect theory" in 1979, the foundation for the field of behavioral economics.

There's a poignancy to Lewis' description of how Tversky and Kahneman's relationship eroded after the mid-1980s, the victim of professional jealousy on the latter's part and their divergent career paths. Both permanently left Israel: Tversky to take a prestigious position at Stanford and Kahneman to join the faculty at the University of British Columbia. Tversky died of cancer in 1996, while Kahneman, alive today at age 82, won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for their joint work, recounted in detail in his New York Times bestseller, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW.

In THE UNDOING PROJECT, Michael Lewis again reveals his facility for taking an arcane subject and making it accessible to a wide readership. Anyone confronting the ideas of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman for the first time through this engaging work is unlikely ever again to think the same way about the complicated phenomenon of how we make up our minds.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on December 15, 2016

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
by Michael Lewis

  • Publication Date: December 6, 2016
  • Genres: Economics, Nonfiction, Psychology
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393254593
  • ISBN-13: 9780393254594