I was intrigued by The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds for two reasons: Michael Lewis is a compelling author, and I am developing a new course on risk-taking and decision-making. This book is about two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who conducted earth-shattering studies that challenged traditional views of decision-making. Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize in 2002 for this work while Amos died in 1996 of cancer.

This book is about the compelling friendship of two opposites – the moody, rather introverted scientist who had escaped the Nazis (Danny), and the charismatic, extroverted, brilliant warrior who had served and worked with the Israeli military (Amos). I was so curious to learn how these two men formed one of the greatest recent intellectual partnerships, as the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova inspired my book, Collaborative Competition(TM): A Woman’s Guide to Succeeding by Competing.

The author, Michael Lewis, begins with how these two men came into his life. After his book, Moneyball, was published in 2003, he was haunted by a review by two academics. They stated that Michael didn’t seem to understand that the reason fat and unshapely baseball players were underestimated (and attractive ones were overestimated) had to do with the human mind and its warped judgments. Kahneman and Tversky were working on research which proved this. Until that moment, Lewis had never heard of these researchers, even though one had won a Nobel prize in 2002.

The psychological causes of inefficiencies of the baseball market had not been a part of his book. He had not explored the foundation of these biases. This led Michael to write The Undoing Project.

What is most enjoyable about this book is the story of these two brilliant men. The author begins with a chapter focusing on each of their respective backgrounds. Danny’s chapter is called “The Outsider” and his story begins with his escape from the Nazis. He learned that the key to survival is to not share much, and to be very selective when choosing friends and associates. Danny’s family eventually settled in Israel where he was excused from the army because of his brilliance. He then began his psychology studies. He longed for objectivity and was not an avid Freud supporter. Rather, he preferred the Gestalt school which focused on meaning – How does the brain create meaning with the information gathered from the senses?

“The Insider,” is the chapter on Amos, who grew up in Israel. At 15 he was identified by the Israeli army as leadership material and went on to become instrumental in the successful brief war with Egypt in 1956. After the war, he heard about an opening in the psychology department at Hebrew University and—not understanding exactly why—he signed up at age 20. Lewis uncovered many stories illustrating Amos’s unconventionality. One of my favorites was a perfect example of how Amos would do whatever he wanted, regardless of how it looked to others: if he wanted to go for a run, he would just strip off his slacks and sprint out the door in his underpants, running until he was tired!

The book goes on to describe how the link between decision making and psychology was discovered, how the two met and formed a relationship, their many research studies, and their behind-the-scenes thinking.

Lewis thoroughly explains the research and concepts about how human judgment distorts decision-making—much more than we realize. I was struck by their conclusions that the stories we make up—rooted in our memories—constrain future thinking. The book shares numerous examples of how we rely on a limited number of heuristics, which can sometimes yield reasonable judgments and other times can lead to severe and systematic errors. Amos and Danny’s research challenged common thinking in medicine, investing, and accepted beliefs in other fields. The book shares examples of how doctors’ intuitive diagnoses are wrong. The researchers went so far to say it is quite likely that the fate of entire societies may be sealed by a series of avoidable mistakes committed by their leaders. I left this book with a greater understanding that human beings don’t realize the extent to which we are fallible. For example, if I have three beers, I might think I am 5% off my game, but I am actually 30% off!

This book left me wanting to tackle Danny’s seminal but rather intimidating book, Thinking Fast and Slow to learn more. If you are curious about your own fallibility or just enjoy reading some fascinating stories, don’t miss The Undoing Project!

 

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