Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

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 the importance of pairs in creativity, 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 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 answers. 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. Again, 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 Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game 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, had 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.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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