The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
W.W. Norton & Company (2016)
A brilliant analysis of how two world-famous psychologists could – and did — “undo” so many misconceptions about human error
I have read and reviewed most of Michael Lewis’ previously published books and thoroughly enjoyed each of them, albeit for different reasons. I agree with Jennifer Senior who begins her review of The Undoing Project for The New York Times this way: “Among Daniel Kahneman’s many imaginative contributions to the field of psychology is something called the ‘peak-end rule,’ which holds that our memories of any given experience are defined not by how we felt about it moment to moment, but how we felt as it ended and how it felt at its most intense. Say you go to Italy, and the first five days are blighted by rain, but the last two are ablaze with sunshine. You are likely to remember that trip far more fondly than had it been the other way around.”
Following this rule, Lewis’ latest book, in which he focuses on “the enchanted collaboration between Dr. Kahneman and Amos Tversky, leaves a lovely afterimage. At its peak, the book combines intellectual rigor with complex portraiture. (Mr. Lewis keeps a number of single-haired paintbrushes on hand for when fine detail is required.) During its final pages, I was blinking back tears, hardly your typical reaction to a book about a pair of academic psychologists.
“The reason is simple. Mr. Lewis has written one hell of a love story, and a tragic one at that. The book is particularly good at capturing the agony of the one [Kahneman] who loves the other [Tversky] more.”
Kahneman and Tversky were indeed an “odd couple” during their collaboration on what Senior characterizes as “some of the most definitive research about just how majestically, fantastically unreliable our intuition can be. The biases they identified that distort our decision-making are now so well known — like our outsize aversion to loss, for instance — that we take them for granted. Together, you can safely say, these two men made possible the field of behavioral economics, which is predicated on the notion that humans do not always behave rationally.”
As I read Lewis’s book, I imagined Kahneman as a highly introverted, humorless version of Woody Allen whereas Tversky reminded me somewhat of Gulley Gimpson in Joyce Cary’s novel, The Horse’s Mouth. The two psychologists did not always behave rationally when interacting with each other during various ups and downs in their collaboration. However, there was great mutual respect, trust, and (yes) affection. Theirs is a love story but one by no means limited to each other. They also share a passion for gaining a wider and deeper understanding of human nature than conventional wisdom acknowledges.
At one point, Lewis observes that Kahneman “was destined to become one of the world’s most influential psychologists, and a spectacularly original connoisseur of human error. His work would explore, among other things, the role of memory in human judgment.” He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2002. No doubt Tversky would have been included had he not died six years earlier. “The Nobel Prize was awarded only to the living.”
I had the same reaction as Senior did to the final pages of this book. Tversky learns that a growth discovered in one of his eyes is diagnosed as malignant melanoma. His body is riddled with cancer and he has, at best, only six months to live. “Danny was the second person he’d called with the news. Hearing that, something inside Danny gave. ‘He was saying, We’re friends, whatever you think we are.’” Despite all manner of differences and difficulties, they were indeed friends.
It is also true, as Amos once suggested: “People are not so complicated. Relationships between people are complicated…Except for Danny.” Perhaps.