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Book review: The Undoing Project

The 'Moneyball' author turns his eye on to the two researchers who revealed the vulnerability of the human mind to error

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman was tortured by doubt and insecurity. Photo: Fred Prouser/Reuters.
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman was tortured by doubt and insecurity. Photo: Fred Prouser/Reuters.

Post-truth. Post-fact. Alt-truth. Call it what you will. That we seem to be living in a world in which facts no longer seem to matter should come as no surprise to anybody who has spent any time in a good book store recently. In the last few years, especially since Daniel Kahneman wrote his best-selling Thinking, Fast And Slow in 2011, shelves have been assailed by an endless stream of books, many of them written by credentialed academics, promising to tell us why our minds are anything but perfect exponents of judgement and prediction. These books also tell us, as something of a corollary, how even the most discerning mind can be easily led astray even as the owner of the said mind continues to believe in his own rational behaviour.

In his latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, Michael Lewis tells the story of the two researchers instrumental in revealing the sheer vulnerability of the human mind to error. Through their decades-long collaboration, as intense as it was fecund, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman revealed the true tendencies of the human mind and along the way, established the foundations of behavioural economics. Kahneman won the Nobel prize in economic sciences in 2002. Tversky would have surely shared it with him, or won it outright years before, had he not succumbed to cancer in 1996.

It is a fascinating story and it is well nigh impossible to find a better raconteur than Lewis to tell it. Early on in this book, Lewis brilliantly describes Kahneman as “a connoisseur of human error". It is a phrase that resonates over and over again in the course of the book. It is also a phrase that aptly describes Lewis himself.

In a career spanning several critically acclaimed best-sellers, Lewis has tended to write about very similar stories. His books—Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short—are all broadly stories about people who, having realized that a particular institution has a deep vulnerability that is invisible to all but them, proceed to milk the weakness for their personal profit. And these deep vulnerabilities are usually born out of human hubris or ignorance.

Thus, The Big Short is about mavericks who saw the weakness in the US mortgage market that no one else could or was willing to. Moneyball was about how an underfunded sports team used analytics to assemble a high-quality team under the noses of much more moneyed competitors, who relied on human perception rather than data to make their picks. Here, the Oakland Athletics used their analytics approach to make supernormal gains on the US baseball draft system.

So far, therefore, Lewis has focused on people who leverage human weakness. In The Undoing Project, he focuses on the people who first identified and explained those human errors: Tversky and Kahneman. This book is the story of that friendship between two Jewish psychologists that “changed the world".

This is, in fact, a love story. There is no other way to describe the intensity of the relationship between Tversky and Kahneman that first bloomed as both men began to work together at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1968. Tversky and Kahneman’s brilliant insights, as Lewis describes it vividly, were born out of long conversations punctuated with roaring laughter. This is the enduring image one gets of their association, at least till the final third or so of the book. The two men engaged in uproar behind closed doors, while bewildered co-workers walked past outside, wondering why they could never find love like this.

And with a love so intense, it is little wonder that Tversky and Kahneman possessed such disparate personalities. Amos Tversky was all brilliance and confidence and swagger. Daniel Kahneman was so tortured by doubt and insecurity that a colleague once referred to him as “Woody Allen without the humour". The two men collaborated on some of the most important ideas in psychology, often sitting side by side in front of a typewriter scripting their work (many years later, even when they were no longer collaborating, Tversky continued to credit Kahneman as a co-author on papers in which the latter was uninvolved).

In 1979, the pair published their paper on prospect theory. One of the most important and widely cited papers in modern psychology, it was the work that eventually won Kahneman the economics Nobel (Tversky had died by then.) Lewis gives a riveting blow-by-blow account of how the two men met, began to collaborate, and then began to lob intellectual firebombs at established thinking in the field of psychology. It was Tversky and Kahneman who brought conversations on cognitive biases and heuristics in decision making to the centre of psychology and, later, economics. The influence of these ideas has now percolated into politics and policymaking.

Even as Lewis focuses on the story of their collaboration, and its eventual undoing, it is difficult not to be swept away by the power of these ideas and their manifestation in the thought experiments that Tversky and Kahneman carried out on graduate students and other test subjects.

The Undoing Project is really a book in three parts. The opening section on baseball is entirely out of place. One can only imagine that this was a ploy to seduce fans of Lewis’ previous works, who may have been turned away by the nature of the topic here. The final sections of the book feel rushed and oddly unsatisfying.

Indeed, I am not entirely sure why the book was called The Undoing Project. The idea of “undoing", a reference to Kahneman’s idea that people create alternatives to reality in their minds by undoing reality, only appears 300 pages into the 362-page book. Unless, of course, the “undoing" refers to what happened to their collaboration towards the last decade of Tversky’s life.

Michael Lewis is a remarkably talented writer, with the capacity to turn an instruction booklet for a microwave oven into a best-selling book and blockbuster screenplay. Therefore, The Undoing Project is a pleasure to read and endlessly informative, in classic Lewis fashion. Indeed, this book is an essential guide to anyone trying to make sense of contemporary life. Yet in the end one cannot help but feel the ideas in Tversky and Kahneman’s minds are somewhat more interesting than the men who came up with them.

The Undoing Project—A Friendship That Changed The World: By Michael Lewis, Allen Lane, 362 pages, Rs799.

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