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Book Review: The Undoing Project

Book: The Undoing Project; A Friendship that Changed Our Minds

Author: Michael Lewis

Genre: Business & Psychology

I recently saw author Michael Lewis interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning about his new book. And I was intrigued with it because it seemed to me to be about intuition. What did I find?

I found a fascinating story about “two guys in the Middle East” who became such good friends that their friendship was often referred to as a marriage or love affair by those close to them. They were Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, both brilliant psychologists and mathematicians. The times in which they grew up were tragic but their life experiences shaped their work.

Danny Kahneman, as a Jew in German occupied Paris, spent much of his youth running and in hiding. At one point the family lived in a chicken coop. His father died but the rest of the family eventually ended up in Jerusalem. As a result, even when safe, Danny had few friends, mostly avoiding social contact. He became fluent in Hebrew and English within a year of arriving in Jerusalem, and in high school he was considered a brilliant student. Because he was intellectually gifted, Danny was allowed to proceed directly to university without doing his mandatory military duty, entering Hebrew University at 17 years of age where he taught himself mathematics and psychology simply because many of the teachers were unqualified. He earned a degree in psychology.

Amos Tversky, also Jewish, grew up in Israel, raised as an only child by his father. He was very outgoing and while not athletic he was always in motion. People were drawn to Amos and he could tell a story that enraptured those listening. He was the most popular kid in school and intellectually gifted. Amos chose humanities as his specialty because he reasoned he could teach himself math. For his military duty he became a paratrooper, soon becoming a platoon commander, and received an award for bravery at the age of 18 years old. When his military duty was over he went to Hebrew University (a few years after Danny had started) where he continued to teach himself math and psychology to earn his degree.

In 1967, both men were working at the Hebrew University where they eventually met. Danny specialized in psychology and ways of making it useful for solving problems. Amos concentrated on “mathematical approaches to similarity, measurement, and decision-making.” He was referred to as a “mathematical psychologist” and Danny was one of the nonmathematical psychologists. One day Danny invited Amos to speak to his class and gave Amos free rein to speak on any subject. Though they knew of each other professionally this was the first time that they interacted.

Amos talked about what was considered cutting edge research and experiments being done by another researcher on the psychological process that produces judgments people make. According to Danny, “the experiment that Amos described sounded just incredibly stupid.” He felt the research “bore no relationship to what he knew about what people actually did in real life…it felt like a math exercise.” After the ensuing debate with Danny Amos left feeling doubt about the theories he had once taken as sound.

Though they got together a few times after that it would be two years before the two men would actually start working together. And since they locked themselves away from everyone else no one knew exactly what they were doing. Passersby on the other side of the door often heard peals of laughter from the now very close friends. When they finally published their first paper it would be the first of “a series of breathtakingly original studies undoing our assumptions about the decision-making process.” Their work was so ground-breaking and applicable so widely, it was recognized in 2002 with a Nobel Prize in Economics. Unfortunately, only Danny received the prize as by that time Amos had died and the award is not given posthumously.

As it turned out Michael Lewis’s book had very little to do with intuition per se. The theories that Danny and Amos pursued were more related to “the ways in which the human mind erred, systematically, when forced to make judgments in uncertain situations.” For instance, it was commonly thought that people use statistics or data to make decisions. But in truth they often ignore the data and follow their gut instincts. This is true even with people trained in statistics and probability.

Lewis fills the book with side stories, the ones of the people who actually used the ideas behind the decision-making theories of Danny and Amos. Some of those side stories were from colleagues who had worked with the two men. This makes the read even more enjoyable and rich in its presentation and content.

Lewis also gives a full account of many of the theories though I have to admit that I tended to skip those parts. As a result I do not completely understand all of the science or theories set out in the book. However, it did not detract from the overall book or my enjoyment in reading it.

I would highly recommend The Undoing Project. I found the style of writing easy to read and since I like stories about people, real people, I thought Michael Lewis did a great job in helping me to understand both Danny and Amos.

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