‘The Undoing Project’; By Michael Lewis; W.W. Norton and Co.; 2017; 362 pages.
Imagine the thought process of Michael Lewis, bestselling nonfiction author of several of the more analytical and interesting books of the past two decades, a body of work that includes “Moneyball,” “The Blind Side,” and “The Big Short.” All three turned conventional thinking about a subject on its side. All three were channeled into popular films. All three revealed Lewis to be one of the sharpest reporters of his generation and a master of explanatory journalism. Who, besides Lewis, explained the economic collapse of 2008 more clearly than he did in “The Big Short”?
And now imagine Michael Lewis being told that the idea behind “Moneyball” wasn’t really based on a new way of thinking at all. “Moneyball” is the story of how statistically based analysis of players could turn a losing small-market Major League Baseball team into a competitive force — tossing aside established wisdom that eyewitness scouting by baseball lifers was the best way to find talent. Imagine Lewis finding out that a pair of university professors from Israel — both psychologists — had mined the area of flawed human decision-making despite obvious statitical evidence to the contrary long before “Moneyball” turned it into a national phenomenon.
That, in essence, is the genesis of Lewis’s latest book, “The Undoing Project.” Lewis, as any great reporter would, became determined to learn more about the work of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky two singular and brilliant individuals of markedly different personalities who worked together almost as one entity on a series of research projects and papers that would redefine previously held views of how the mind processes fact into decision. It’s a story about scientific study, the flaws inherent in us all and finally about an improbable friendship between two men closer than perhaps any tandem in history until forces so typically found in divorces between longtime married couples separated them.
Lewis learned about the work of Kahneman and Tversky after the release of “Moneyball” when reading a review of that book in 2003. It was written by economist Richard Thayer and law professor Cass Sunstein. who pointed out that the true reason for inefficiencies in baseball talent scouting derived from a flaw in the workings of the human mind outlined by Kahneman and Tversky years before. Even experts could be foiled into misjudgments warped by their own flawed thinking. Lewis was not only intrigued by what he didn’t know about the two psychologists but the story itself. How did these two psychologists alter long-held beliefs, turn it into economic theory, alter how business would be conducted for decades and conduct Nobel-prize winning research?
As usual, Lewis found a remarkable story in these two men, what motivated them, their influences — especially shaped by combat in the Israeli army during a time of almost non-stop war in the 1960s, their research and deep friendship based on almost unshakable trust — until the trust was gone. The latter is an all too human frailty, too. Even the brightest people can’t outrun their emotions, jealousies or personalities.
It’s story that’s complicated in the telling with skips in geographic settings from Israel to the United States and Canada. Although Lewis does a wonderful job of sidestepping psychological or academic jargon, some parts of the narrative about the research can seem to travel in circles. The studies are not complex so much as nuanced. It takes careful reading to pick up on the subtle differences between one question or another. That in itself helps bring home the difficulty in human decision-making itself. What might seem obvious to the practiced eye could escape the attention of many others.
Lewis begins with what seems an unrelated but helpful chapter that sets the stage for the science-based story to follow. He looks at drafting mistakes committed by a professional basketball team — the Houston Rockets — an organization run by a devotee to the kind of metrics used in “Moneyball.” But even Daryl Morey, the team’s general manager, misjudged draft picks even though his numbers clearly indicated which player should be drafted. One player scored off the charts in this statistical game but didn’t look like an athlete at all. The player, now an all-star for the Memphis Grizzlies named Marc Gasol, was called “Man Boobs” by people in the Rockets organization and they failed to draft what became one of the league’s best players.
Thus Lewis sets the table for a series of projects put in place first by Kahneman and later joined and enhanced by the ideas and influence of Tversky. The scientists created different hypothetical situations for common occurrences then posed questions to people based on those scenarios. When the outcomes were unclear they would take new approaches to the scenarios or reverse the questions for those surveyed. They attacked problems from multiple angles to find where human thinking breaks down and why.
Kahneman specialized in statistics and behavior and Tversky was a leader in the emerging field of mathematical psychology. Kahneman’s view of human behavior was that people are often deceived by their eyes and ears. He saw “idiocies commonly accepted as truths.” He swayed Tversky to his way of thinking from a common sense standpoint but counter to conventional thinking in psychology at the time. While people should think in terms of statistical probability when making decisions, they simply do not.
From their first paper in 1970, the work of Kahneman and Tversky was widely hailed but also criticized but almost never dismissed or proven to be false.
Their research into different aspects of human thinking and decision making moved from one point to the next for a decade. They examined how people make choices and the differences in what decision they reach based on how a question is phrased — research that has impacted polling and economic decisions for the past 40 years. Their work reached new territory in the study of gambling, stereotyping and critical errors. The Undoing Project itself was a concept born of examining fatal accidents and removing the decisions or situations leading to such incidents in order to one day save lives.
While not quite as easily accessible as “Moneyball” or “The Big Short,” Lewis successfully makes the case in “The Undoing Project” that the work of Kahneman and Tversky influenced the work of psychologists and economists for almost a quarter century and is still doing so today. it’s a compelling and enlightening story layered with multiple characters, opinions and ideas that are highly conceptual, complicated and yet shockingly obvious.