I started Michael Lewis’s “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds” with some scepticism, because it was recommended to me as a book chronicling the close relationship between psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and a narrative potentially anchored by two independent biographies which eventually converge (and diverge) did not initially appeal to me. The narrative still included these elements, but instead intertwined among them were useful summaries of their research concepts or work on heuristics in judgement and decision-making (relevant biases which were referenced include the endowment effect, confirmation bias, present bias, hindsight bias, the halo effect; familiar heuristics include representativeness, availability, and anchoring), and the extent to which their work has had an impact, in the fields beyond (behavioural) psychology.
More fascinating, in fact, were details of the special working partnership the two Israelis shared, as well as the many conflicts and their personal insecurities which gradually surfaced. Contrasted against the groundbreaking work they did – and reading it as a researcher to-be – knowing in greater depth the up-and-down nature of their relationship humanised this pair of academic giants.
The book is therefore a great summary of their personal lives and their professional work, enriched by Lewis’s clever use of academic references – and further complemented by his ability to succinctly explain concepts to the average reader – together with the many interviews or conversations he gathered with family, friends, and colleagues who knew Kahneman and Tversky best. Some of these names are familiar, such as American economist and recent winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences Richard Thaler (also the co-author of “Nudge”). In addition, as the partnership began to fray and to break down (or, as alluded to in the title, as the partnership began to “undo”), Lewis tried very hard to balance the mindsets and actions of both men.
Otherwise, the book is very much a primer to their research work and contributions. In this vein, Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast And Slow” – which substantially explains, through a distinction between “System 1” and “System 2” as “agents” of one’s mental life, the human biases of intuition or the errors of judgement and choice – should interest the reader looking for greater rigour. Even with depressing yet powerful ending, “The Undoing Project”, I think, is ultimately a celebration of their work in heuristics, through which people, not just decision-makers, can be more cognisant of their fallibility and thus work to improve that. Because rather than use statistical reasoning, people rely on heuristics, which are mechanisms “for making judgments and decisions that were usually useful but also capable of generating serious error”. And by better understanding our systematic errors of judgement, we could then “improve that judgement”, and work to “improve [our] decision-making”.