The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changes Our Minds

By Michael Lewis

Hardcover $28.95, E-read edition $16
Norton Press, 362 Pages
Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a Nutshell: The story of an academic odd couple that shape and form the field of behavioral economics.

Who’s it for? General audiences, anyone who has enjoyed Michael Lewis’ other books (“Moneyball,” “The Blind Side,” “The Big Short”).

Author Quote: “The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see. “

My introduction to the author Michael Lewis began at a book event in Dearborn, Mich. in 2006. A promotional copy of “The Blind Side” made it into my hands. I put it aside for a few months, opened it, and finally began reading it. At the time I had no idea who Lewis was. Yet it only took a few chapters to recognize that he was an amazing writer with the ability to recognize an interesting subject and form a story that consistently maintains one’s attention.

Lewis latest effort, “The Undoing Project” was released late last year. The book’s subjects came to him from an outside review of his book “Moneyball,” which told the story of Billy Beane, a baseball general manager that found success paying more attention to statistical tendencies than the eyeball test of traditional scouting. The reviewer pointed out that this inaccuracy in the way the human mind forms judgements had been studied for years by psychologists Dr. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Lewis realized then that the premise of “Moneyball” was “…simply an illustration of ideas that had been floating around for decades and had yet to be fully appreciated by, among other, me.” It was from this epiphany that Lewis knew that the story of Kahneman and Tversky was worth telling the world by writing “The Undoing Project.”

The book begins in earnest when we learn the backgrounds of both men. Kahneman is a Paris-raised Jew who stays on the move with his family during World II to escape the Nazis. He goes on to become an academic prodigy and into adulthood is neurotic and insecure. Tversky is a self-assured extrovert who enjoys jumping out of planes and the adrenaline rush of desert warfare. They meet in a fledgling Israeli academic program in the 1950s.

Although their personalities are polar opposites, Kahneman and Tversky share a passion for solving existing flaws in human psychology. Their relationship is rocky at first, but over time their brilliant minds reinvent a field that had had previously been considered imprecise at best.

The biographical format of “The Undoing Project” does not limit Lewis’ ability to take the deep dive into Kahneman’s and Tversky’s academic efforts. Their work centers on the how we inaccurately trust our intuition to make important decisions. An Asian American basketball player from Harvard is incorrectly judged to be nothing but a role player. Yet it’s not until that same player (Jeremy Linn) demonstrates all-star ability that we recognize the error of our thought processes. We judge probabilities based on our preconceptions rather than logical, likely outcomes.

Even though Lewis breaks down the academic details, it’s the dynamic between the Kahneman and Tversky that remains the focus. Despite their occasional fallouts, their relationship grows quite close as the decades go by and their work together becomes more recognized. As one breakthrough paper after another is written, they can’t remember which of them wrote what and they unselfishly take turns deciding which of them the work should be attributed to.

In the end, their studies revolutionize data studies, reshape medical practices, and change (for the good) government regulation. The two worked together until Tversky died in 1996. At that time, he was under consideration for a Nobel memorial prize in economics, an honor that Kahneman did win in 2002, likely with contributions from his long-time cohort.

Chris Wendel is a business services consultant with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette. More of his business book reviews can be found at https://upnorthbusiness.wordpress.com. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.

 

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