The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis is the story of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the two Israeli psychologists who created a whole new discipline — behavioural economics — and in doing so, changed the way we think about thinking.
The book starts in a strange place — with a basketball game and links the reason for Lewis writing the book back to a previous best-seller of his — Moneyball. That was all about the use of statistics in baseball by the Oakland A’s coach Billy Bean who beat the system by choosing to look at things that the big teams missed when making his draft picks or transfers from other teams. He looked for value rather than assuming that because somebody was a big hitter they would be the best player. It worked of course and now the rest of sport has cottoned on to it — ‘moneyball’ is the dominant approach in a lot of professional sport. When Lewis was reading the reviews of the book somebody said that the book was great but that it was something that was already known in psychology and economics because of the work of Kahneman and Tversky. Lewis had never heard of them but soon started to find out more.
Tversky died in 1996 well before Lewis started writing the book but Kahneman took part in interviews as did many of their collaborators over the years. The key to the story though is something Lewis never saw, the relationship between the two men and that’s what the book is about. Lewis tries to get to the core of why these two people were able to question so much that had gone unquestioned before. Both admitted that it wasn’t something they would have come up with on their own but they were an unlikely couple save for the fact that they were both Israeli psychologists and bumped into each other at the University of Michigan in the 1960s.
The book does explain most of their work but you can get that from Kahneman’s excellent summary Thinking Fast and Slow. What it tries to dig deeper into the creative partnership and how it worked. Strangely an academic interviewed them both about it in the 1970s as part of a book about creative double-acts. Tversky and Kahneman claimed they didn’t know themselves but admitted there was a hint of competition about it. Ultimately they fell out over the way that the profile and plaudits were shared. Tversky’s outgoing personality meant that he was the most in demand and Kahneman felt slighted by that. In the end it was Tversky’s illness and impending death at the age of 59 that brought them back together.
It is an amazing story but one you wouldn’t think could make a good book (or a movie, although you can bet after Moneyball and The Long Short there will be one), but it does. It’s a wonderful exploration of the relationship between two incredible people and how that relationship changed the world.