Who was Amos Tversky and why is he significant?

kahneman-tverskyDaniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (above) are the focal point of Michael Lewis’s latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, published by W.W. Norton & Company (December 2016).

Tversky was a cognitive psychologist who changed the way experts in many fields think about how people make decisions about risks, benefits and probabilities. He was renowned for his brilliant mind, his ferocious intellectual curiosity, and his challenges to what Jim O’Toole has so aptly characterized as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here are a few brief excerpts from the Lewis book.

“To his fellow Israelis, Amos Tversky was. at once, the most extraordinary person they ever met and the quintessential Israeli.”

“His father, Yosef Tversky, was a serious man who “brought his son to his knees with laughter about his experiences, and about the mysteries of existence. ’This work is dedicated to my father, who taught me to wonder.’”

“Even as he spoke, he gave the impression of constant motion. He wasn’t conventionally athletic — he was always small — but he was loose-jointed and fast: twitchy and incredibly agile…He loved the sensation of falling, and the view of the world from above.”

“Amos was the most insistently upbeat person anyone knew.”

The soldiers in the Israeli army under his command, “even in combat, refused to wear their helmets, claiming that the weather was too hot for them and ‘if a bullet is going to kill me, it has my name on it anyway.’” (to which Amos replied, “What about all those bullets addressed ‘To Whom It May Concern’?”

“He kept the hours of a vampire.”

To one of his faculty colleagues, “You know, Murray, there is no one in the world who is as smart as you think you are.”

Tversky “had a preternatural gift for doing only precisely what he wanted to do.”

According to Amnon Rapoport, he once said, “There is nothing we can do in philosophy. Plato solved too many of the problems. We can’t have any impact in this area. There are too many smart guys and too few problems left, and the problems have no solutions.”

“The trouble with philosophy, Amos thought, was that it didn’t play by the rules of science. The philosopher tested his theories of human nature on a sample size off one — himself.”

“Danny was always sure he was wrong. Amos was always sure he was right. Amos was the life of the party; Danny didn’t go to the parties.”

“Amos was a one-man wrecking ball for illogical arguments; when Danny heard an illogical argument, he asked What might that be true of? Amos was not merely a pessimist; Amos willed  to become optimistic, because he thought pessimism was stupid.”

Tversky’s strategy for dealing with social demands [e.g. invitations to an event]: “Unless you are kicking yourself once a month for throwing something away, you are not throwing away enough.”

Tversky’s explanation of why the medical profession refuses to acknowledge uncertainty: “To acknowledge uncertainty is to admit the possibility of error. The entire profession had arranged itself as if to confirm the wisdom of its decisions.”

You get the idea.

* * *

Here is a brief excerpt from Tversky’s obituary in The New York Times. Amos Tversky died on Sunday [June 2, 1996] at his home in Stanford, Calif. He was 59. The cause was metastatic melanoma, said Stanford University, where he was the Davis-Brack Professor of Behavioral Sciences.

“Dr. Tversky (pronounced TUH-VER-skee) once said he merely examined in a scientific way things about behavior that were already known to “advertisers and used-car salesmen,” and much of his work has indeed had an economic slant, shaping the way economists look at decision-making by consumers and business executives. It also influenced statisticians and other researchers interested in how decisions involving risk are made in fields like medicine or public policy.

“His research showed that people do not always behave rationally when they make decisions, that they generally put more emphasis on risk than benefits, and that there are many more quirks in the human reasoning process than many earlier economic and psychological theories had contended.”

To learn more about Amos Tversky and his work, please click here.

I highly recommend The Undoing Project as well as Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; October 25, 2011).

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