Michael Lewis, the author of Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side, and Moneyball is out with a new book that is already a bestseller: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds.
The stars of the book hail not from the worlds of sports, nor big money or celebrity. Instead, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are academics who wrote articles in the types of scholarly journals that are so laden with jargon and statistics as to be nearly incomprehensible to anyone without formal training in behavioral science.
The two men, though, really were extraordinary. Unlike many scholars who are contented to work on their own esoteric questions in their ivory towers, Kahneman and Tversky were passionate about real problems in the real world. They were especially interested in human judgment and decision-making, and the systematic ways those processes can go so very wrong.
The Undoing Project is the story of Kahneman and Tversky’s startling and enduring contributions to our understanding of how people think. More movingly, it is the tale of their deep, inspiring, productive, and sometimes fraught friendship.
In their work, Kahneman and Tversky were able to plumb the depths of the human mind as people struggle to make judgments when the correct answers are not at all certain. The scholars came up with a small number of simple, powerful mental shortcuts that sometimes lead people astray. They called the shortcuts “heuristics” – systematic biases shared by ordinary people as well as some of the most experienced decision-makers.
The heuristics explain a boundless collection of human reasoning and behavior. For example, because of Kahneman and Tversky’s research, we now know why people insist that their arthritis flares up with changes in the weather, when it demonstrably does not. We know why athletes, fans, and sportscasters can all agree on the athletes with a “hot hand” when they are all wrong. Because of their work, we have a better understanding of what doctors get wrong in diagnosing illnesses, how military leaders sometimes make catastrophic decisions, and why we should all be frightened when any of our leaders insist on making decisions based solely on their gut feelings.
Michael Lewis argues that it is possible to draw a line from the writings of Kahneman and Tversky to Obama-era policies that made driving safer, eating habits healthier, school lunches more accessible to chronically-hungry children, and retirement savings more likely to accumulate. No case needed to be made that the psychologists changed the field of economics. The phrase “behavioral economics” would have evoked puzzled looks before the twosome made their mark; now it is a thriving sub-discipline, with intriguing and consequential findings constantly spilling out of the academic journals and into the newsfeeds of intellectually curious laypersons all around the world.
The work of Kahneman and Tversky became known, informally, as the “people are stupid” perspective. As Lewis explains, though, that was a bad rap. The scholars believed that the heuristics exist because much of the time, they are useful and result in accurate judgments. They also showed that even trained statisticians fall prey to the faulty judgments and decisions that result when the heuristics are used inappropriately. In fact, sometimes Kahneman’s or Tversky’s own mistakes were the intellectual impetus for the discoveries that followed.
The Undoing Project is a masterful articulation of the scientific contributions of Kahneman and Tversky. Its beating heart, though, is the portrait of the men’s friendship with each other. As Lewis noted, “What they were like, in every way but sexually, was lovers. They connected with each other more deeply than either had connected with anyone else.”
They sought each other out constantly, spending hour after hour alone together, behind closed doors, talking and writing and laughing. In Israel, they fought wars together. They moved from the U.S. to Israel and back again in tandem, sometimes prioritizing their friendship over their marriage or the wishes of their spouse.
What came undone in The Undoing Project was not just our old way of understanding human judgment and decision-making, but also that very intense friendship between the two scholars. That undoing was heart-wrenching. In the pain it caused the two friends, the break-up rivaled any split between spouses or lovers. It became nearly unbearable when Tversky was diagnosed with a fatal illness just days after the two men’s darkest moment with each other.
I was interested in The Undoing Project because of the pivotal place of the work of Kahneman and Tversky in my field of social psychology. I cannot imagine that there was a graduate student anywhere in the late 1970s or early 80s who was not schooled in the writings of those two towering figures.
For the first hundred or so pages of the book, though, I wondered whether other people without any special interest in Kahneman or Tversky or their work would be intrigued. The discussion of the two men together does not begin until page 142; before then, their stories are told individually. By the last third of the book, though, the pace quickened, and my guess is that just about everyone who made it that far was hooked.
The Undoing Project, for all that it had to say about the shortcomings in human judgments and the unraveling of a friendship for the ages, was a profoundly joyful book. Lewis showed us what we could get right in our thinking despite all our biases, he wrote a poignant ode to friendship, and he also conveyed, on page after page, the true joy of thinking and learning and discovery. Here’s hoping that goes viral.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
By Michael Lewis
Norton, December 2016
Hardcover, 362 pages