The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

Best-selling author Michael Lewis examines how a Nobel Prize–winning theory of the mind altered our perception of reality.Forty years ago, Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote a series of breathtakingly original studies undoing our assumptions about the decision-making process. Their papers showed the ways in which the human mind erred, systematical...

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Title:The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
Author:Michael Lewis
Rating:
ISBN:0393254593
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:362 pages

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds Reviews

  • Jan Rice
    Jan 23, 2017

    After reading about this book, I pre-ordered it, six months before its release date.

    It's about the work of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who published

    in 2011 and his late collaborator, Amos Tversky.

    had a big impact on me.

    Moreover,

    's author is Michael Lewis, of

    and

    fame. That's about all I knew of him. Around the book's release date there was a flurry of publicity interviews. I watched several, inc

    After reading about this book, I pre-ordered it, six months before its release date.

    It's about the work of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who published

    in 2011 and his late collaborator, Amos Tversky.

    had a big impact on me.

    Moreover,

    's author is Michael Lewis, of

    and

    fame. That's about all I knew of him. Around the book's release date there was a flurry of publicity interviews. I watched several, including the long one with Charlie Rose. Michael Lewis could hold his own and articulate his subjects' work.

    Besides being a writer of best-selling nonfiction, some of which have been made into popular movies, Michael Lewis has an undergraduate degree in art history and a Master's in economics. He's worked as a trader, then resigned to write his first book,

    , published back in 1989 just after he'd turned 29. He became a financial journalist and has written for an array of well-known magazines, including a stint as a senior editor at

    .

    This book,

    , focuses on the biographies of Kahneman and Tversky, not only on their ideas and work. That's not why I read it. That that's what Lewis had to do to appeal to his usual wide readership made me a little cynical. In the book, Daniel Kahneman becomes "Danny." The ups and downs of their relationship and the whys and wherefores of their collaborative creativity are a large part of the book. In my mind's eye I foresee a movie turning the two men into marketable personalities such as Oliver Sacks became in the movie

    . I wonder how "Danny" is feeling about that. Yet that may be the price of cluing more people into their work.

    is a best-seller, and Lewis' role here is as a popularizer.

    He uses biography with its temporal correlate as one of his organizing principles, proceeding through ideas to some extent in the order they were hatched, but that doesn't necessarily help in the reader's grasping and ordering the ideas. That's one of my complaints. You won't necessarily be impacted by the ideas. You won't necessarily see that they apply to you, although they do. For that, read Kahneman's own book,

    . Lewis says Kahneman is a star in the classroom, a contention supported by the fact that he's a star in that book, a genius of a teacher.

    Kahneman has a subsection in his own book called "CAN PSYCHOLOGY BE TAUGHT?" which I transmuted into the broader question, "Can people be led to look at themselves?" and, on the basis of his book, I answered "Yes."

    Another of my complaints about

    is the first chapter, which is completely dedicated to basketball. Although Lewis touches on the ideas he's going to bring out later in the book, the chapter is not that comprehensible to those who don't follow basketball. I guess it's another nod to his general readership.

    Now for the good part.

    Despite the way the book is organized, the overload of biography, and that opening chapter, Michael Lewis is able to write clearly and succinctly about the cognitive illusions that bias our decisions. Having been previously introduced to those concepts, I experienced the book as a refresher course, and directly upon plunging in, breathed a sigh of relief as I felt my perspective clearing under its influence.

    The book covers the usual territory: heuristics, bias, the weakness of expert judgment relative to algorithms, the cognitive illusions to which humans are subject. Heuristic: the term coined to reflect quick and dirty rules of thumb that, to a degree, work, except when they don't and lead us astray. For example, the "availability" heuristic: the more easily something comes to mind, the more important and right we think it is.

    And, yes, it's science, not theory, that is, all research-based.

    Rather than going into a lot of detail to describe it, though, I can attach a link or two, and then use most of my space here to describe some fun parts.

    For example, knowledge is prediction. What do you think about that?

    In the basketball chapter, Lewis describes how expert intuition failed to predict; hence the relative success of algorithms in giving an advantage to the team depending on them instead of conventional expert judgment.

    Transitioning from basketball to baseball, here's an informative 2003 review of

    by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who figure in

    . Surprisingly, when Michael Lewis wrote

    , he'd never heard of Kahneman and Tversky or their work. He cites this review in his introduction. (The picture is of Billy Beane, not Lewis.)

    Michael Lewis uses the technique of embedding the stories of various individuals whose careers and lives were impacted by Kahneman and Tversky's work. That technique I find useful, maybe because I, too, find their work impactful

    Richard Thaler, one of the authors of

    article I linked, was an economist who was having trouble finding his way in a field then based on the assumption that people were rational. The assumption had entailed that although people did err, they were essentially rational; their errors thus could be assumed to be randomly distributed--outweighed and meaningless. Instead, people's behavior was characterized by systematic error. If error was systematic, it could not be ignored.

    That sounds like such a thrill; really gets my iconoclastic juices flowing.

    There are so many examples of ways our thinking and decisions are shaped; framing for example: for people, perception of a "loss" depends on framing, which is manipulable. Two monkeys are satisfied when each is rewarded by a cucumber, but let one get a banana and all hell breaks loose. You earn a certain amount that you think is reasonable for work on a project--an amount that is greater than others in your group. Now say you earn the exact same amount but discover your peers received twice as much. Suddenly the previously sufficient amount is grossly inadequate.

    That's just one example but one with which I'd become familiar since framing (or "reframing") had entered the therapeutic lexicon.

    Another personage whose life and work surfaces in the book is Donald Redelmeier, a physician, who, as a result of having come across Kahneman and Tversky's work on judgment under uncertainty as a teenager, came to oversee decision-making in a trauma center as a preventive for systematic errors.

    Let me not forget to mention that people are geniuses of rationalization. We can't predict what's going to happen, but, once something does happen, we connect the dots to make whatever it was appear to have been inevitable. An "occupational hazard" of historians, thus, is to connect observed facts into a confident-sounding theory while neglecting the unobserved (or unobservable) facts. A similar hazard for social science experimenters is to take results that contradict the hypothesis and rationalize them, rather than discarding the hypothesis as flawed. Thus it is that talking heads of all sorts can often cover up their errors in prediction and simply keep on talking.

    At one point Kahneman and Tversky were enamored of something called Decision Theory, thinking that presidents and prime ministers could be educated and aided in logic like emergency room physicians--until coming up against the fact that powerful people--usually men--mostly had no interest at all in knowing about their mistakes. Here is a

    review of

    that tells a little more about that, shares an additional quote from the book, and makes the frightening connection to the Age of Trump:

    That article makes reference a Social and Behavioral Science Team in the Obama White House. Yes, most but not

    leaders wish to remain oblivious to their gaps in making good decisions: former President Obama had a team in place to aid the government in using the new cognitive knowledge for the common good of the American people, and it remained in place until the last minute. Here's a link to an article about it from the January 23, 2017, issue of

    :

    But, now,

    Sad, what we are losing! Two steps forward and, it appears, a giant step backward.

    But we can still learn. Little simple things that make a difference.

    Such as (from the same

    article):

    In the Kahneman vernacular, just denying Obama is a Muslim played on the availability heuristic. Even though the content--the words--deny the charge, by repeating it they made it come to mind easier and thus seem more true and relevant. The second option, stating that Obama is a Christian, interfered. It threw a little bit of a monkey wrench into promulgation of the problematic belief.

    This stuff is useful. If this is how our minds work (if that's the sort of thing that is working on our minds, anyway) then what constitutes free will is grasping that knowledge and using it for the sake of better thinking.

  • Shana Yates
    Dec 07, 2016

    4.5 stars. Absolutely wonderful. Michael Lewis successfully blends two biographies, an intellectual love story (there really is no other way to describe the Kahneman/Tversky partnership), astute sketches of the work they did (in heuristics and biases), and how the partnership had ripple effects in a myriad of areas (from economics to psychology, from medicine to the military, and beyond). The book moves at a brisk pace, never dull, and fleshes out the men behind the scientific work. This vantage

    4.5 stars. Absolutely wonderful. Michael Lewis successfully blends two biographies, an intellectual love story (there really is no other way to describe the Kahneman/Tversky partnership), astute sketches of the work they did (in heuristics and biases), and how the partnership had ripple effects in a myriad of areas (from economics to psychology, from medicine to the military, and beyond). The book moves at a brisk pace, never dull, and fleshes out the men behind the scientific work. This vantage point into where Kahneman and Tversky came from, the events that shaped them, their intellectual make-ups, and the alchemy of their partnership is a real treat. This added depth to the scientists only makes me appreciate their work all the more. Highly recommended for anyone, but especially those who have read Thinking Fast, And Slow, any book on behavioral economics, or students of how human cognition leads us astray. A fantastic book that I couldn't put down.

  • Trish
    Dec 22, 2016

    This nonfiction is unlike others Michael Lewis has offered us. In this he tries the trick of explaining confusion by demonstrating confusion, but near the end of this work we appreciate again Lewis’ distinctive clarity and well-developed sense of irony as he addresses a very consequential collaboration in the history of ideas. Lewis did something else he’d not done before as well. By the end of this book I was bawling aloud, in total sync with what Lewis was trying to convey: why humans do what

    This nonfiction is unlike others Michael Lewis has offered us. In this he tries the trick of explaining confusion by demonstrating confusion, but near the end of this work we appreciate again Lewis’ distinctive clarity and well-developed sense of irony as he addresses a very consequential collaboration in the history of ideas. Lewis did something else he’d not done before as well. By the end of this book I was bawling aloud, in total sync with what Lewis was trying to convey: why humans do what we do.

    Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. What is remarkable about that statement is also what is remarkable about Lewis’ attempt to explain it. Lewis made us feel the chaos and the unlikelihood of such a success, in this case, of ever finding that one person who complements another so perfectly that the two literally spur one another to greater accomplishment. From a vast array of possible choices, opportunities, and directions come two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who together add up to more than the sum of their parts.

    One thing became clear about the groundbreaking work done by Kahneman and Tversky: despite the curiosity, drive, and iconoclastic talent each possessed, their moments of greatest crossover relevance came as a result of the involvement of the other. This could push the discussion into an examination of

    , but Lewis resists that thread to follow what he calls a “love story” to the end, to the breakup of the two men. Once the closest of friends and collaborators, the reason for their breakup is at least as instructive as anything else Lewis could have chosen to focus on, and it makes a helluva story, full of poignancy.

    Kahneman was an idea man, throwing up new psychological insights constantly, beginning with his early work recruiting and training Israeli soldiers for the front line. Tversky was a widely admired mathematical psychologist, iconoclast, and skeptic who challenged accepted thinking and in so doing, provided new ways to look at old problems. Just by asking questions he could lead others to find innovative solutions. Both Israelis were teaching at the University of Michigan in the 1960s but their paths didn’t overlap until later, back in Israel. In one of the classes he taught at Hebrew University Kahneman challenged guest lecturer Tversky’s discussion on how people make decisions in conditions of uncertainty.

    In this instance Kahneman became the iconoclast, the skeptic, pulling the rug from underneath Tversky. The challenge got under Tversky’s skin, but instead of falling prey to anger, Tversky was galvanized. Colleagues who saw him at this time recall his unusually intense period of questioning. After a period of time, the men came together again and thus began one of the richest and most rewarding periods of intellectual collaboration in modern times.

    Together, both men were able to isolate some important pieces in the thinking sequences of humans who were presumed to maximize utility in rational, logical decision trees. It took many years to isolate what struck them as incomplete or incorrect in the accepted thinking of others, but what they concluded revolutionized the thinking in several disciplines, including economics (and baseball).

    Lewis’s earlier book

    discussed how an algorithm assigning different weights to individual characteristics of baseball draft picks could by-pass the errors human tend to make when looking over a list of potential players. This is related, in a distant way, to the illogic discovered in the decision trees Kahneman and Tversky discussed, and unfortunately Lewis decides to revisit the breakthrough in his own understanding at the beginning of this book. Describing that tangential result of the men’s essential discovery unnecessarily complicates and obfuscates Lewis’ central thrust in this book—the relationship between two men who supercharge their achievements when they are together. Once Lewis settles into the real subject of his book, his writing becomes familiarly crystalline, filled with science and emotion, describing a singularly fascinating tale.

    Particularly interesting is Lewis’ attention to how ideas develop. Lewis tries in several instances to get to the moment of insight, and then to the moments of greater insight which might lead finally to upturning accepted beliefs about how one thinks the world must work. Happiness and regret both came under the microscopes of these men and it was hugely insightful for them to discover that regret was the more impelling emotion. People often made decisions to minimize regret rather than maximize happiness. This led to the ‘discovery’ that the value of positive ‘goods’ decreased after a certain level of attainment, while the value of negative ‘bads’ never lost their bite. Which could be another way of describing the apparently supreme need to minimize loss rather than maximize gain. Which led to the discovery that people often gamble against what had been perceived as their own interests.

    The two men were opposites of one another, Kahneman a heavy smoker whose office was messy and disordered, and Tversky, who hated smoking, with an office so well-organized it looked empty. For a period of almost twenty years, during the years of their greatest output, they could often be found together, talking, or writing one another if apart. They published hugely influential papers and became the toast of several continents. The closeness of the two men appeared to have no discrepancy until gradually over time, Tversky became better known and more popular in scientific and academic circles. The equilibrium of the relationship was thus unbalanced and a period of estrangement led the men in different directions.

    The entire story, in Lewis’ hands, is wonderfully moving. If you can thrash your way through the thicket of ideas at the entrance to the main repository of ideas in this book, prepare yourselves to be utterly delighted.

  • Darwin8u
    Feb 02, 2017

    ― Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds

    I love Michael Lewis. His ability for finding an idea that is centered on a person and then telling that person's story is phenomenal. He isn't the only one that does it. John McPhee is a master at this angle (perhaps

    ― Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds

    I love Michael Lewis. His ability for finding an idea that is centered on a person and then telling that person's story is phenomenal. He isn't the only one that does it. John McPhee is a master at this angle (perhaps THE master). Lewis just does it very, very well.

    This book is basically a book about the development of behavioral economics, or at least the thread of behavioral economics that came from two Israeli psychologists -- Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. These men were two brilliant academics drawn together by a marriage of knowledge and they created a family of ideas related to:

    - Cognitive psychology

    - Judgment and decision-making

    - Behavioral economics

    - Hedonic psychology

    They wrote revolutionary papers on:

    - anchoring and adjustment

    - availability heuristic

    - base rate fallacy

    - conjunction fallacy

    - framing

    - behavioral finance

    - clustering illusion

    - loss aversion

    - prospect theory

    - cumulative prospect theory

    - representativeness heuristic

    I first heard of these men when I was studying public policy back in my young college days. The professor I worked under had his PhD from Chicago and was constantly throwing various funky economic articles, etc., at us. It was through this professor I was first exposed to Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (see

    ),

    , AND Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. I loved behavioral economics. I'm not sure what it is about multi-disciplinary approaches, but I've always loved them. I often find academic fields to be too insular, too artificial. In a way, there are huge gaps that never get covered because they don't fit easily into one field (or any field). Those academics who are willing to learn another language and take their search for truth beyond economics, or math, or physics, biology, chemistry, or psychology and utilize the language and processes of other fields THRILL me. So, while there wasn't much on the academic side here I wasn't already familiar with from things I've read the lsat 20 years, I LOVED reading about Kahneman and Tversky (and some of the other minor players in this book).

  • Christy
    Dec 19, 2016

    To start with the mundane and annoying: for a book with this much technical content, terms, and names an index almost seems a necessity, yet none was provided. More foot/endnotes and perhaps a fuller bibliography would be helpful, too. We must support the popularization of scholarly topics, and I’ve read that it takes, on average, at least 20 years for new ideas, analyses, and discoveries to move out of the academic curriculum of higher education to what we teach our children in secondary school

    To start with the mundane and annoying: for a book with this much technical content, terms, and names an index almost seems a necessity, yet none was provided. More foot/endnotes and perhaps a fuller bibliography would be helpful, too. We must support the popularization of scholarly topics, and I’ve read that it takes, on average, at least 20 years for new ideas, analyses, and discoveries to move out of the academic curriculum of higher education to what we teach our children in secondary schools. I would have been less annoyed with the single reference to the importance of Gestalt theory here without Kurt Lewin, “utility theory” without Bentham’s utilitarianism, etc. I have read the criticism that the theory isn’t “taught” so much here, but Lewis is clear it’s about the “friendship”, after all, and the context of discovery as well as the influences in and around their mathematical psychology/behavioral economics but, still, how much time and money does it take? That Lewis’ books are so plentiful, popular, and apparently all on cutting-edge issues, yet the books don’t include full references has to be part of some problem. However, to his credit, he does mention the issue of the academic/popular divide in non-fiction writing on scholar topics in his endnote. I did enjoy Lewis’ good writing, even if nothing is clearly explained except for about the two, their friendship and thinking, and the environs of that. Early on Lewis reminds us of the folly of our never-ending desire to have experts who know things with “certainty”. I don’t need that in writing, and maybe I’ve graded too many papers, but I want a clear thesis. Lewis writes about a ton of interesting things, but I want to see some kind of argument through-line, even if it’s to poke fun at an argument. One of the delightful facts, also hidden in his endnotes, is the coincidence by which Lewis got to know Tversky’s family including access to his papers. Lewis was a teacher of one of Tversky’s sons! He ended up meeting the mother while giving the child a recommendation.

    I was studying Sociology of Science and researching probability theory in social science when I learned about Tversky and Kahneman’s theory, and heard a talk by Gigerenzer (that I think Lewis dismisses unfairly, discussed below.) We know that decision-making in Behavioral Economics and applied market analyses were studied throughout the latter half of the 20th century with the same, central question: what does mind do when it’s deciding on something, when we’re uncertain about if and how to make a choice? Of course, our "emotional brain" emotes on it! Otherwise, we often cannot make decisions. I'd understood from Damasio

    and LeDoux

    that emotions must often be applied to our reason in order to make a decision, the former noting the example of the man that in an accident had his neocortex separated from the limbic system (emotional center) and he ceased ability to make decisions, merely calculating and considering one possible decision after another without emotions to force a choice. As Lewis shared, humans don’t make decisions over a number, but need a “story”. We can’t remove the human mind from our decision-making processes, and we often experience “failure(s) of human intuition” like with the Thorndike’s well-known “halo effect”, when we make judgments of others based what we want to see, and don’t often recognize what we aren’t expecting to see. In the last decade or two, computer software and algorithms have improved data analysis and predictive strength, but we can’t program a computer to remove surprises and the unexpected from our perceptions. That is a goal of the “undoing project”. Data-driven decision making in sports isn’t an interest of mine as I don’t like sports (and even avoid sports metaphors), so the first part of this book was a bit painful to get through. Certainly, the read became to me much more interesting when it switched to Kahneman’s life and early influences.

    In their early work, Kahneman and Tversky contrast formal, scientific, statistical thinking with our everyday judgments of probabilities in real life situations. They claim everyone commits the fallacies, including our expert statisticians when they estimate probabilities in everyday situations. They grant that people are not “economic men (sic)”: rational-logical, unbiased, with calculator brains. However, they think this divergence between everyday estimates and statistical, formal thinking to informal thinking is bad. They themselves are normatively defending the explicit, rational approach. I loved their criticism of statisticians’ irrationality as I’d taken and somehow passed Advanced Statistics at the same time working on an independent study project critiquing the use of probability theory in social sciences. When I mentioned to my stats prof that only one of several versions of probability theory underlies all of statistics, he threw up a bit of the salad he was eating (true story). I was also concerned with the “growing prestige of math in the social sciences” (or what others have called “physics envy”!) instead of social and behavioral sciences focusing on important questions. It didn’t help that my doctorate statistician professor was what I called an “asocial sociologist” (how does that happen?) who casually mentioned that most all his best students appeared to be males over the years, with only two females in a class of a dozen or so, then gave me lower grades than my lazy male buddy who I helped work out some of the assignments. He also said that only students who can’t do statistics well read Marx and Weber.

    Thaler and Redelemier were also two interesting people we meet in Lewis’ story. Thaler argued that “it is the anticipation of regret that affects decisions, along with the anticipation of other consequences”. We decide in ways not to “maximize utility” but to “minimize regret”, since more utility (happiness, in Bentham's calculus) tops out but regret is the gift that keeps on giving (negatively). Redelemeier became Tversky and Kahneman’s “pet schnauzer” protegee, and noticed that while medical school professors made errors in a systematic and traceable way they did not assume errors were in their data. I love that he became a doctor because he loved Hawkeye Pierce on MASH, and also the observation that since most diseased people get better, it’s difficult for the doctor not to believe they had a definitive role on it. “In math you check your work, in medicine, no”, in part as “to acknowledge uncertainty is to admit error”, as Lewis summarizes. Stanford’s head of cardiology advocated against motorcycle helmets, and Redelmieier was amazed at the stupidity that a medical doctor could do that, but I understand the “macho Western man” mentality. (The use of medical decisions here and in several other places in this book are poignant in the context of the news this week that a Harvard study claims that female physicians save 10s of thousands of patients more than male physicians…hummm?)

    Towards the end, the economists were explained almost as the manifestation of their Neo-classical economic views of human nature. They were egotistical and wanted to prove their points, while psychologists were more introspective and wanted to sort out different positions. “Psychologists saw economists as immoral and economists say psychologists as stupid.” I’m not sure if this dichotomy is true or based in any real analysis of personality types besides anecdote. I’ve known economists that were the inquisitive, collaborative type and the psychologists were the cut-throat, competitive pedants, out to not learn the best perspective but to promote their own. In any case, Comte believed that psychological was not a science, or at least the introspective part of it, and it’s it interesting to compare this cross-disciplinarity with how Marx took up biological terms in his economic analysis, and now psychology as "decision science" uses the market terms of economics: utility, value, choice.

    I was close to finished with the book last weekend when I read Leonhard’s NYT review (

    ) that seemed to shift at the end between the descriptive claim of Kahneman and Tversky that people think fallaciously in everyday estimates and their normative claim that the rational, statistical approach is better and ought to be followed. Leonhard’s clumsy analogy to Trump came after Lewis’ better comment in the book, noting the failure of accurate assessment by journalism as few to none “shoe-leather reporters saw Trump coming”. Leonhard’s claiming Trump undermines Kahneman and Tversky’s approach confuses what they describe as happening with what the advocate as good to do. He seems to claim that the Trump victory shows that rational thinking is not successful in that Trump won. But this seems to be assuming that Trump’s win is desirable (which Leonhard obviously doesn’t believe). On the other hand, voters’ behavior electing Trump does illustrate the irrational nature of everyday thinking that Kahneman and Tversky describe.

    Leonhard’s saying that Trump undermines Kahneman and Tversky seems confused. He shows what they claim people actually do. However, if Kahneman and Tversky advocate “rational” thinking, and this rational thinking failed to stop Hitler and Trump this shows emotional biases trump (!) statistical thinking. It would seem the solution is for the advocate of rational, statistical thinking to study the Trumpites and figure out how to sway them away from Trump. This means attempting to rationally understand the irrational, for instance, Marx tried to do. Marx was a rationalist in his own position, but wasn’t a rationalist in the sense of believing society was driven by people’s purely rational reasons. Kahneman and Tversky’s implicit advocacy of pure rationality vs. irrationality is oversimplified in that reason must understand and channel irrationality. This is somewhat like Freud, who was a nineteenth-century rationalist, but believed most human thinking was irrational, and advocated a technique to change the irrational into the rational. Wilhem Reich and the Frankfurt School critical theorists, albeit unsuccessfully, attempted to do this kind of “social psychoanalysis” to counter fascist movements. Something like this is needed to deal with social irrationality. Perhaps what is needed is a successful version of this project, that includes clarifying what we mean by success.

    I am disappointed in movements for data-driven decision-making, as they get co-opted for corporate purposes. I’m a bit embarrassed to have organized with others the first two “data-driven decision-making” conference for education in the US (’93 and ’94) and by the end of that decade the “DD DM” phrase was cliché, but Big Data and decision-making in education is a mess today. I must get to

    because Lewis reminds of strongly of how mathematical modeling is over- and misused, as if the models represent anything real or useful, and often include serious “oversimplification”. (I used to argue with my Stats prof whether the Central Limit Theorem was found or created.) What I ached to read about here and was left empty, is where is the real “undoing” of the paradigm of Enlightenment thought that held that the twin pillars of science and rationality that were taken up by Western capitalism would make humanity better? Wouldn't a “success” model focus on social problem solving? The problem with the ideology of the never ending, always expanding Western notion of progress is that the focus on better “results” through statistically complex decision-making is only for the win, the sale, the deal, the pitch (in both sports, as Lewis reminds, and in advertising).

    Some of the most interesting threads were about their Jewish heritage and early and later life in Israel. Both of these collaborators had Rabbi grandfathers, were atheists, and influenced heavily by their involvement in the ’73 Yom Kippur War (a time that was referenced when a provost, whose Israeli brother was killed during that fighting like one of their nephews were, told my friend, an academic colleague who’d started a local Palestinian Rights group, that my colleague was the type that “loved dead Jews but hated live ones”. So, I’ve sensed the strong impact of that particular war on the Jewish psyche). Going through tragedies makes us all wiser and stronger on the other end, even often at long last, and it was good for Lewis to note the war made them both less “academic” in the bad sense (over-specialized, theory without application) but focused on “real life” practical solutions to problems.

    It was good for this staunch pro-Palestine heart to imagine how in ‘48, as I never had before, that some parents and children would recognize each other on the Tel Aviv streets fleeing the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. Lewis discusses Tversky’s stereotypical Jewish self-conception as a “brain without a body” - a strong mind with a weak body. Tversky had no friends growing up and was intellectually precocious (perhaps autistic or Asperger’s, like Einstein?) and wondered why humans needed religion as a young person. He did not have to do the regular conscription in the Israeli Army as his academic achievement was obvious. I thrilled to the visions of Post-war Israeli who by that point had the most remarkable scholars from around the world and especially in the sciences and the philosophy of science. Tversky taught himself statistics in is a psychology that was largely behavioristic. I adored the distinction between “WASP psychology” white-rat behaviorism and “Jewish psychology”, that accepted the “great wet mess” of the human experience and the problem of objectivity. Israeli psychologists were among those making the humanist turn in psychology to Gestalt field-like thinking. Moshe Dayan spoke to a group of Israel youth, and said that Nahal (a youth group that coaxed people into the Kibbutz) were “traitors” and should be becoming “paratroopers” (and presumably fight Arabs) instead of farmers. As Tversky lay dying, Netanyahu was elected, and remarked he’d never see peace in his lifetime, and knew he wouldn’t, in fact.

    Gigerenzer in various articles and in a popular book version, Gut Instinct, disagrees with Kahneman and Tversky’s theory. He thinks that the rough and ready heuristics of intuitive thinking often do better than the explicit, statistical decision analysis. It is not true, as Lewis claims, that Gigerenzer totally ignored their work and did accurately criticize their statistical fallacies, showing that many were not fallacies in alternative theories of statistics. Gigerenzer happened to go through their fallacies and went in detail in a public talk I attended at the Univ. of NH when he was brought it by a psychology prof with whom I’d studied. I don't believe that Gigerenzer described only “the object of his scorn as he wished it to be rather than as it was”, as Lewis claimed. Gigerenzer’s claim that the fallacies that Kahneman and Tversky claim to identify are only fallacies on a certain kind of Bayesian probability and not on the most commonly used scientific probability, the frequency theory. (Again, even well-known statistics professors do not always understand the varieties of probability theory.) Lewis admits that neither Tversky or Kahneman were eager to counter Gigerenzer, but leaves the impressed Gigerenzer is dismissed while Lewis stoops a bit to link Tversky’s rapid hatred of Gigerenzer to the latter’s connection to the Nazi Germany that Tversky naturally hated.

    The best aspect of the book were the recounts of the intense friendship of Kahneman (who sounds “textbook” high-functioning Autistic to me) formal, serious, solitary, nervous, pessimistic, and Tversky informal, irreverent, social, happy, optimistic. (Living with two of the former, both partner and child, with me squarely the latter, I enjoyed noting and comparing what Lewis revealed about their relationship - the Oscar and Felix of TV’s “Odd Couple” of decision sciences!) They loved each other – an ending salutations on a letter from Amos to Danny gave “goosebumps from emotion”, and they had that passion, loud-voiced exchange I’m used to from Eastern Europeans and New Yorkers - “we’re Israeli, so we yell at each other.” A Jewish friend tells me in her culture people interrupt each other not out of rudeness but because we’re so eager to talk to each other – to communicate with someone we love, and with the ability to be each other’s strongest and most helpful critics, too. They understood the key to getting along is good faith (of the Sartre kind) and good humor and Lewis mentions the almost constant, hearty laughter between them, or at least when they weren’t arguing for hours on end. This intense of a relationship is the best we can get with friends and lovers in both our short- and long-term relationships. The two reminded me to be grateful for having similarly powerful relationships including with the friends that when if you don’t connect with each other for too long a spell the hearts do ache for it. When we’re older and as secure as we’re going to get, we admit that more to each other, don’t we? Their story is one of communication, of mutual need and enjoyment of just being together, and brings us a bit of awe to realize how fragile relationships are – how we can’t always know what brings people together and drives people apart, and why, indeed, it seems imperative to spend “quality” time with some people and not with others, a focus on how various couplings can create something bigger than both, and how random changes can occur in relations. Even though they experienced “divorce” of each other and admitted the frustration and “pain” each caused the other, they were compelled to come back for more. Danny and Amos’ love and connection to each other is probably the real story of the human condition here.

    Michael Lewis’ interview earlier this month on Charlie Rose has a number of juicy details that weren’t in the book, and is worth the watch if you want to know more:

  • David Rush
    Dec 12, 2016

    I will be bold, and confidently tell you what this book is all about...Humans making decisions are inherently handicapped by systematic biases that make them think they are being logical, but often, or possibly usually, are not.

    And Mankind longs for certainty but we live in an inherently uncertain word.

    (Kindle Locations 2619-2620).

    There, no need to read any more or my review.

    BUT, I do ramble on, so here goes…

    The two psychologis

    I will be bold, and confidently tell you what this book is all about...Humans making decisions are inherently handicapped by systematic biases that make them think they are being logical, but often, or possibly usually, are not.

    And Mankind longs for certainty but we live in an inherently uncertain word.

    (Kindle Locations 2619-2620).

    There, no need to read any more or my review.

    BUT, I do ramble on, so here goes…

    The two psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman starting in the 1960’s, discovered when people make decisions in times of uncertainty, they are influenced by biases in place of statistical thinking, and sometimes flying in the face of statistics, make decisions quite confidently. Sometimes with deadly results.

    There are tons of cool psychology terms like heuristic, availability heuristic, representativeness heuristic. I am not going to define heuristic for anybody, until I actually figure it out, and that may be my first criticism, Lewis mentions something about “rules of thumb” and somehow I’m supposed to understand what “heuristic” means. I think I picked it up from context, but I don’t want to embarrass myself by mis-defining it.

    OK, refocus! SO, we humans live in an uncertain world, but in general we bend our thinking and our memory so we are more certain of things than we ought to be. And Daniel Kahneman was uniquely qualified to investigate this kind of thing.

    (Kindle Locations 245-247).

    And they go on to identify and the multitude of ways people reassure themselves they are right.

    (Kindle Locations 2506-2507).

    (Kindle Locations 2531-2533).

    As it relates to the last US presidential election the key insight is that people simply don’t make decision because of factual analysis…

    (Kindle Locations 3359-3361).

    And of course one big argument is between this thinking and economist (and their related political parties) who claim people will act logically in their own self interests. Thereby letting the invisible hand of capitalism solve all our problems.

    (Kindle Locations 3429-3432).

    (Kindle Locations 3437-3438).

    Too bad it is just a crock of, well something.

    People don’t make decisions because of the “utility” of how it will improve their life. The point is people make decisions because of the story line they construct in their head. The story generated either from memory or from cultural outside influences. Which definitely explains the whole business of advertising. Too bad we are running the world because of the stories

    (Kindle Locations 2569-2575).

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    I have to point out that any smart person reading this or the book itself will think "HEY!, that is not me!", "I am logical and make logical decisions".

    And it does get fuzzy, because a lot of their evidence is from psychological test with a bunch of hypothetical situations. So, sure, maybe in real life we would straighten up and not let our natural biases rule us. And I bet a lot of people believe that. But seeing some of the real life choices I've seen or heard about...I'm gonna stick with Amos and Danny.

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    There is a bunch more, and some pretty shocking examples of how susceptible “experts” are to all these same biases.

    On a final note, most of what I said above is from the first ¾ of the book. And the last part is about “The Undoing Project” that is not covered as well, to the point I wonder why Lewis chose that title. Unless he is saying A & D are "undoing" the thinking of the conventional world? Or more probably it was some wordplay and only refers the undoing of their friendship, maybe.

    Conclusion 1: Great points on how screwed we are as a civilization and how making good decision is an uphill battle.

    Conclusion 2: Even though they were both brilliant psychologist and I’m just a poor schlub reading about them, I think they are so into discounting traditional psychology they miss a big part of being human. I don’t think either of them give much credence that we are anything more than decisions making machines. Not much for the unconscious or subconscious or any non-measurable part to living. So my irrational notion there is something more to life than the measurable, keeps me from being more enthusiastic about this book, and I wish Lewis had addressed that.

  • Brandon Forsyth
    Dec 26, 2016

    I think my friend Andrew put this best: only Michael Lewis could make this story exciting. The only thing I can add to this is that I am now genuinely excited to read Daniel Kahneman's THINKING FAST AND SLOW, a book that it feels like a hundred people have tried to sell me on over the years and that I had, up until this moment, resisted. Lewis is a master storyteller, and the way he plays with the tension of both this ideological partnership and the ideas themselves is truly impressive. 4.5 star

    I think my friend Andrew put this best: only Michael Lewis could make this story exciting. The only thing I can add to this is that I am now genuinely excited to read Daniel Kahneman's THINKING FAST AND SLOW, a book that it feels like a hundred people have tried to sell me on over the years and that I had, up until this moment, resisted. Lewis is a master storyteller, and the way he plays with the tension of both this ideological partnership and the ideas themselves is truly impressive. 4.5 stars.

  • Jake
    Dec 19, 2016

    “In the end, peace can be achieved only by hegemony or by balance of power.” ~ Henry Kissenger

    Michael Lewis clearly has a reverence for this friendship. So do I. They are two men who brought me to thinking more probabilistically and why I chose my own academic focus. Who wouldn’t want to read about the platonic and professional love Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky shared, so strong that their wives were intensely jealous. These two men would go on to change how we think about economics, psychol

    “In the end, peace can be achieved only by hegemony or by balance of power.” ~ Henry Kissenger

    Michael Lewis clearly has a reverence for this friendship. So do I. They are two men who brought me to thinking more probabilistically and why I chose my own academic focus. Who wouldn’t want to read about the platonic and professional love Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky shared, so strong that their wives were intensely jealous. These two men would go on to change how we think about economics, psychology, probability and public policy, by simply calling out others for their bullshit, especially those who would call themselves experts. If they shared any skill or love it was this. The relationship is a tragic one. I don’t really care for spoilers so if you do you can stop reading here. Amos Tversky dominated this partnership and other experts, due to his extroverted nature, made it possible for him to do so. This would lead to the partnerships downfall, as Danny was an introvert and had no patience for such bullshit. That Kissenger quote was in the back of my head throughout reading this book and I think it really summarizes my views on their partnership.

    People are predictably irrational. It’s very tempting to say that you know something that I don’t know. It’s much harder to say that we both make mistakes and that those mistakes are predictable, transcending our wealth, education, and other demographics. If we are to improve ourselves it’s to look for leadership qualities that look to call out bullshit and are cognizant of their own bullshit, then try to replicate this. Certainty is a seductive quality in a leader. We say we want leaders who will “tell us like it is” and “never accept that their wrong.” In fact, these are the clearest signs of stupidity and it isn’t a strategy that generates success consistently. Amos and Danny knew this. In many ways they couldn’t be more opposite. They both clearly saw qualities in each other that they loved but lacked in themselves, and it produced a partnership that would change the world. Read this book to learn about that partnership.

    “I had this problem. My pilots were doing weird things. We were making weird mistakes. Several times we had planes landing at the wrong airport. People weren’t dying, but it was an embarrassment to the airline. I needed to talk to someone about decision making so I brought Amos in. To this day Amos Tversky affects how we train airline pilots and other airlines have imitated our way of training. The change he suggested, was that our cockpit was this autocratic decision making environment where the pilot is a god and nobody checks him. He told us that this was the worst sort of decision making environment, and told us we needed to make it more egalitarian where the co-pilots can say stuff. We changed the culture of the cockpit in relation to Amos Tversky’s advice and those mistakes didn’t happen anymore.” ~ Jack Mar, in charge of training pilots for Delta Airlines.

  • L.A. Starks
    Jan 02, 2017

    If Kahneman and Tversky were giving talks today, they'd be YouTube/TED talk stars.

    While I first became acquainted with their work during business school, Lewis more comprehensively outlines how their take on psychology has so profoundly affected the discipline of economically-rational (or not so rational) man. Anything published in the last fifteen years on the subject of decision-making owes a debt to these two remarkable researchers.

    Tversky passed away before the Nobel prize was awarded for h

    If Kahneman and Tversky were giving talks today, they'd be YouTube/TED talk stars.

    While I first became acquainted with their work during business school, Lewis more comprehensively outlines how their take on psychology has so profoundly affected the discipline of economically-rational (or not so rational) man. Anything published in the last fifteen years on the subject of decision-making owes a debt to these two remarkable researchers.

    Tversky passed away before the Nobel prize was awarded for his work with Kahneman. Since the Nobel is not given posthumously, Kahneman was the sole recipient. However, Tversky, who became a Stanford professor, was widely-recognized and honored during his lifetime.

    Non-fiction; highly recommended for readers interested in business, decision-making, economics, and statistics.

  • John
    Jan 17, 2017

    First of all, I feel somewhat guilty about the rating. Some parts of the book I liked very much. Michael Lewis writes well but I believe he has fallen short here. Lewis is best at setting up an underdog who beats the system (in sports, the financial markets, etc.). He has attempted the same here about Tversky and Kahneman. But reading about academics who challenge conventional wisdom in the field of psychology is ... less interesting than financial traders who short the mortgage market, or adopt

    First of all, I feel somewhat guilty about the rating. Some parts of the book I liked very much. Michael Lewis writes well but I believe he has fallen short here. Lewis is best at setting up an underdog who beats the system (in sports, the financial markets, etc.). He has attempted the same here about Tversky and Kahneman. But reading about academics who challenge conventional wisdom in the field of psychology is ... less interesting than financial traders who short the mortgage market, or adoptive parents who help their talented son beat the odds and get drafted to the NFL, or who compile a winning sports team through metrics.

    The first chapter is not at all about Kahneman and Tversky, but about the use of metrics by the Houston Rockets in the NBA. Very interesting to me, but it appeared to be some creative recycling by the author of some good material he never worked into book length. Then the book launched into some very interesting biographical information about Kahneman and Tversky, Buy the middle of the book, however, I was bogged down into what I felt were interminable descriptions of faculty politics, and various surveys designed by K and T to demonstrate irrational thinking. Then they broke up, and (spoiler alert) Tversky died. I felt the book could never really decide if it was a biographical appreciation or an explanation of their theories.

    Given that Kahneman wrote his own successful book aimed at a popular audience (Thinking Fast and Slow), is this book merely the result of Lewis' "pitch" to possible movie producers? I suspect that Lewis made much more money from the movies made from his books than from the books themselves.