Author: Michael Lewis

Publisher: W,W, Norton & Company

ISBN: 978-0393254594

Michael Lewis is the author or Moneyball, the story of how the Oakland Athletics used big data to supplement—or replace—expert opinion. After it was published in 2002 a pair of academics pointed out that Lewis "did not seem to realize the deeper reason for the inefficiencies in the market for baseball players. They sprang directly from the inner workings of the human mind . . . " Lewis admits, "My book wasn't original. It was simply an illustration of ideas that had been floating around for decades and had yet to be fully appreciated by, among others, me."

Ideas about the way the human mind works or fails to work when we form judgments and make decisions were explored and described by two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They wanted to know how did someone arrive at a conclusion when faced with uncertainty? How do we process evidence? What is it about people's minds—including the minds of experts who ought to know better—that leads them to misjudgments? The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds is Lewis's clear and engaging effort to explicate those ideas.

If you've read Daniel Kahneman's best-selling Thinking Fast & Slow many of the ideas and examples in The Undoing Project will be familiar. What makes the book so interesting is the biographic information about Tversky and Kahneman, the stories about their collaboration and eventual separation, and some of their work's consequences. But even if some of their insights and observations are familiar, Lewis is able to help the reader understand where they came from and why we tend to think and act as we do.

Both Kahneman and Tversky. Israeli psychologists, served in the Israeli military, Kahneman helping train fighter pilots, Tversky as a paratrooper. They both graduated from Hebrew University, and both immigrated to the U.S. Kahneman was teaching a graduate seminar at the University of Michigan when he invited Tversky, who he barely knew at that point, to give a guest lecture. Tversky talked approvingly about cutting-edge research then being done at Michigan on how people respond to new information in their decision-making. Kahneman thought the study's premise was, in academic terms, bullshit and said at much to Tversky, who was seen as a boy genius and unused to being contradicted. 

But when he considered Kahneman's criticism, he began to wonder certain assumptions economists had always made. Back at Hebrew University in 1969, the pair began talking, and what these talks evolved into was an intellectual collaboration as intense as a close marriage. Anyone who wanted Kahneman could find him before lunch. Anyone who wanted Tversky needed to call late at night. "In the intervening time, they might be glimpsed disappearing behind the closed door of a seminar room they had commandeered. From the other side of the door you could sometimes hear them hollering at each other, but the most frequent sound to emerge was laughter." Their fifteen-year collaboration and the papers they wrote together ultimately blew up the economics profession.

Until Kahneman and Tversky began publishing, economists assumed that people made decisions, economic and other, as if they understood the underlying economic factors. As if, in other words, people were rational economic beings. We're not. 

Or not always. We can be influenced by the way an issue is framed: "Holy Father, is it a sin to smoke while praying?" Yes, it is. But: "Holy Father, is it a sin to pray while smoking?" Of course not, my son; go and smoke in peace. Tversky and Kahneman discovered among other things that "simply by changing the description of a situation and making a gain seem like a loss, you could cause people to completely flip their attitude toward risk, and turn them from risk avoiding to risk seeking."

The Undoing Project is a fascinating dual biography that introduces readers to two remarkable scholars and their work that changed the world. Lewis has known Kahneman since 2007. (Tversky died of cancer in 1996.) He has interviewed their students and absorbed their papers (cited in the bibliography). Because Lewis is such an exceptional writer, his book about two academics and their work never flags. Anyone who is curious about his/her own mind—and how to avoid being tricked by it—should read The Undoing Project and then Thinking Fast & Slow.