The Undoing Project

Unusually for me, I’ve read a just-published hardback (props to the friend who pilfered me an unwanted copy from his magazine’s literary department).

It’s Michael Lewis’s latest about the remarkable friendship of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, The Undoing Project. The two Israelis — each eccentric and brilliant in their own way — discovered or seeded much of what is now known as behavioural economics, the family of claims whose central insight is that we are less rational than we think. Kahneman and Tversky discovered that heuristics, the rules of thumb with which we make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, often lead us astray. If this sounds familiar, that’s because these two and their progenies made it so.

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It’s almost three decades since Lewis wrote Liar’s Poker and he remains the greatest living writer of narrative non-fiction. The Undoing Project is impressive because academia is a rather more doubtful milieu from which to spin a rollicking bestseller than sports (Moneyball) or the financial crisis (The Big Short). Lewis didn’t write this one for the film rights.

That said, this is a classic Lewis book delivered in lucid, biting prose. It identifies the misfits, draws the dividing line between them and the retrogrades and tells amateurs like us why it matters.

Aside from its being a concise and authoritative guide to behavioural science, there is a gently recurring irony which makes the book a pleasure to read. Kahneman and Tversky detailed holes in human judgement wide enough to drive a bus through, but their own personal relationship was hobbled by serious character flaws. An initial closeness in Israel — they flipped a coin to decide whose name would appear first on published research, it being impossible to distinguish their respective contributions — weakened as their careers in North America diverged. Tversky’s personal success, stemming from his enormous charisma, made the shy Kahneman envious and — being acutely aware of human feelings, not least his own — deeply unsettled. Tversky repeatedly failed to recognise and act on the obvious tension.

Tversky died young in 1996 and so didn’t live to share his partner’s 2002 Nobel Prize or co-author his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which synthesised much of the pair’s workLewis of course was only able to give Tversky a voice through contemporary writings and the recollection of others, a sad fact that limits his story to a “recommended” rather than “must-read”.