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Review of The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis manages to keep things interesting while telling the story of the professional relationship between psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

books Updated: Apr 01, 2017 00:58 IST
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s father was one of the thousands of Jews who were rounded up and taken to the Drancy camp outside Paris. Most were later deported to the death camp of Auschwitz.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s father was one of the thousands of Jews who were rounded up and taken to the Drancy camp outside Paris. Most were later deported to the death camp of Auschwitz. (Sygma via Getty Images)

There aren’t many professors of psychology who have jumped out of airplanes or slept on the ground next to a battle tank in the middle of a raging war. But Daniel Kahneman (“Danny”) and Amos Tversky (“Amos”) were gifted Israeli psychologists who naturally took the first plane out of America to go back to Israel to join the Yom Kippur war of 1973. They went around the battlefields in a jeep distributing psychology questionnaires to Israeli soldiers.

In The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World, Michael Lewis focuses on the unlikely and intimate friendship and professional collaboration between Danny and Amos. Lewis, author of Flash Boys and Moneyball, has written another page-turner. Any inquisitive lay reader will find this book full of fascinating insights into the imperfections of our mind, the many cognitive biases and “the way the human mind worked, or failed to work, when it was forming judgments and making decisions”.

This book traces its origins to Moneyball, Lewis’s book about the inefficiencies in the market for baseball players and, in particular, a review of Moneyball written in 2003 by economist Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein and published in the New Republic. The field of cognitive biases is so full of surprises that one feels, in researching the present book, Lewis may have gathered ideas that we will get to read about in his next book. What is the probability of that?

This book is gripping and enjoyable. Lewis manages to keep things extremely interesting as he introduces readers to different concepts of psychology while also providing a close-up of how Danny and Amos collaborated in developing and polishing new theories and writing the joint papers that would make ‘Kahneman and Tversky’ or ‘Tversky and Kahneman’ such a familiar and influential byline in psychology.

Kahneman — one-time smoker of two packs a day — got the Nobel in Economics in 2002 but by then malignant melanoma had claimed Tversky’s life. Tversky was the non-smoker and paratrooper who had won a bravery award from the Israel Defence Forces.

By giving us a riveting behind-the-scenes look into the psyche and lives of these two characters, Lewis has ensured that this book will linger in the reader’s mind. In the initial chapters we learn about young Danny’s Holocaust experience. It was not a ‘formative’ one for him.

“People say your childhood has a big influence on who you become,” Lewis quotes Danny as saying. “I’m not at all sure that’s true.” But ‘Israel’ sure has a big influence. Danny saw death and fighting up close in Jerusalem in 1947.

It’s more or less impossible for us to really understand what it must have felt like to live in hiding, to be on the run for months and years as Danny’s family had to do and did. Danny’s father had been imprisoned in the makeshift prison in Drancy, outside of Paris.

“For most Jews, Drancy was just a step on the way to a concentration camp,” writes Lewis. “Upon arrival, many of the children were separated from their mothers and put on trains to be gassed at Auschwitz.”

Danny’s father — descendant of illustrious Lithuanian rabbis — was released through the intervention of L’Oreal’s founder. Danny’s family fled to the south of France. Eventually, the Germans reached the south of France.

“German soldiers in black uniforms now pulled men off buses and stripped them to see if they were circumcised. ‘Anyone who was caught was dead,’ recalled Danny.”

Danny’s family moved to Palestine in 1946.

By the age of 15, a vocational test had identified Danny as a psychologist. “My interest in psychology was as a way to do philosophy. To understand the world by understanding why people, especially me, see it as they do. By then the question of whether God exists left me cold. But the question of why people believe God exists I found really fascinating.”

The book’s only ‘flaw’ may be that there are no twists in the tale, no bumps on the road to greatness for both the psychologists. Although there is one little tale of the nudist landlords.

In telling the story of the flowering — and then the eventual withering — of this professional relationship, Lewis manages to keep things interesting while explaining the relevant concepts and theories of psychology.

We learn about how Danny solves the problem the Israel Air Force officers were facing — when the flight instructors praised an exceptionally fine manoeuvre by a trainee pilot, he usually tended to do worse in his next task and when the instructors were critical of an especially poor move, the pilots tended to do better the next time around.

Danny observed: “Because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean, it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them.”

Lewis explains the ‘Linda problem’ and gives other examples of questions that Danny and Amos used on college students — and sometimes prison inmates (with high IQ) — to show how the human mind is not very good at making the right choices when asked questions where the mind is required to judge matters of probability.

Danny used to ask his psychology students to come up with good currency designs that would be hard to counterfeit. The head of pilot training at Delta Air Lines went to Amos when he faced the problem of pilots making embarrassing mistakes such as landing at the wrong airport.

How do you decide who is going to be a good pilot? Danny helped the Israeli Air Force with this and the Israel Defence Forces in general with slotting Israeli youth into the right branch of the military.

For his part, Amos Tversky helped organizations as diverse as the National Basketball Association (NBA), the United States Secret Service, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with issues as diverse as ‘statistical fallacies’ in basketball, ‘how to predict and deter threats’ to Secret Service protectees, and decision theory or how people made decisions under conditions of uncertainty.

Author Michael Lewis speaks during the Skybridge Alternatives (SALT) conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, US on May 12, 2016. (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

‘Famous Amos’ — Stanford graduate students of Amos had given him this nickname — was also Eccentric Amos, Insightful Amos, Brave Amos, and Quotable Amos.

While Amos was brash and aggressive — Danny was cautious and self-doubting. Both were stars in Hebrew University where both taught psychology. Later on, when Tversky was ‘on the market,’ universities moved swiftly to snag him and we read the tale of how Stanford moved quickly to make him an offer.

Danny and Amos, both atheists, were opposites in other ways — one was an optimist, the other a pessimist, one had a clutter-free office while the other’s office was a complete mess and so on.

As different as their personalities were, they were fascinated by each other and loved each other’s company and collaborated on writing papers so closely that they almost became one person and could not decide who should get the lead authorship credit. First they flipped a coin and then just decided to alternate thereafter between Amos and Danny as the lead authors of their joint papers.

The book is chock-full of interesting anecdotes. There is the tale of how researchers at the Oregon Research Institute did the research on unsuspecting participants about how humans would react to the swaying of tall buildings — the buildings in question being the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Lewis is such a fine storyteller that the characters of Danny and Amos come alive and the reader also gets insights into the problems of human psychology that they were grappling with.

Among Tversky and Kahneman’s key insights into human judgement is the concept of ‘availability heuristics.’

To explain what this is, Danny and Amos used the example of seven letter words in English ending in ‘ing’ vs. seven letter words that had ‘n’ in the sixth place.

What can be other examples to illustrate availability heuristics in action? Perhaps the obsession with cricket — instead of, say baseball — is one such example. Cousin marriages, which are still in vogue in 21st century India, are perhaps another. The immense popularity of Bollywood stars as measured by the number of Twitter followers is also perhaps availability heuristics in action.

Once you understand these concepts of psychology, you wonder which of these principles are at work when people (sometimes) take risky gambles in their voting decisions; or why people stick to a single partner for life. What is the allure of religion? What is the point and meaning of nationalism and mixing up ‘national pride’ with a rocket or missile launch? Why do people obsess more over terrorism-related incidents and deaths but not as much over road accidents which lead to the deaths of literally millions of people the world over?

Read more: Book review: The Undoing Project

This fruitful collaboration was at its peak when the two collaborators were at the same university campus in Israel. Once they moved to a different campus in North America, things began to change. Amos got many recognitions early making Danny jealous. Amos appeared to be the star of their partnership to others. He got offers from prestigious universities like Stanford and Harvard, was invited to be a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and got the MacArthur ‘genius’ grant.

After 300+ pages, we reach the early 1990s when the Golden Age of Amos and Danny’s ‘marriage’ is over and the relationship is now at the stage of a messy divorce. Or you could say their relationship did not follow the ‘peak-end rule.’

While they were collaborating on writing a response to one of their critics, the German evolutionary psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, Danny found Amos difficult to work with. Danny always preferred to be non-confrontational and conciliatory while Amos preferred to be confrontational and aggressive. While they were having a back-and-forth email discussion about the two versions of the postscript they had written, Danny wrote to Amos: “On a day on which they announce the discovery of 40 billion new galaxies we argue about six words in a postscript... It is remarkable how ineffective the number of galaxies is as an argument for giving up in the debate between ‘repeat’ and ‘reiterate.’”

We should probably find many occasions to deploy the ’40 billion new galaxies’ argument in our lives.