Wednesday, December 28th, 2016...12:34 pm

An unraveling friendship

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The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis, Norton, 362 pages, $28.95


Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky proved two adages: opposites attract and two minds are better than one.

Starting in fall 1969 at Hebrew University, pessimistic introvert Danny paired with optimistic extrovert Amos to explore how people make judgments and choices and why they’re so often wrong.

The Undoing Project recounts two psychologists’ unlikely bonding, their groundbreaking discoveries and the collapse of their intense collaboration, all brightly told by Michael Lewis, whose previous 14 books include the successful Moneyball and The Big Short.

Danny and Amos, as they are referred to throughout the book, “were blessed with shockingly fertile minds,” according to Lewis, and “were explicitly interested in how people functioned when they were in a ‘normal’ unemotional state.” Lewis calls Danny “one of the world’s most influential psychologists.”

Both men had Eastern European rabbi grandfathers. Young Danny and family hid in France during the Shoah. Sabra paratrooper Amos was, to his friends, “the most extraordinary person they had ever met and the quintessential Israeli,” Lewis says. “Danny was always sure he was wrong, Amos was always sure he was right.” Danny’s office was a mess; Amos’ was barren. Amos was the life of every party; Danny didn’t go to parties. Amos hated smoke; Danny smoked two packs a day.

“By the end of 1973, Amos and Danny were spending six hours a day with each other, either holed up in a conference room or on long walks across Jerusalem,” talking, arguing, laughing, says Lewis, who characterizes them as mated every way but sexually. “They’d become a single mind,” sometimes unable to recall which idea had been whose.

Their first joint paper showed how “people mistook even a very small part of a thing for the whole.” The later “Subjective Probability: A Judgement of Representativeness,” dealt with how people compare a new situation to a model in their minds, Lewis says.

Other findings included how memory can distort judgment; that people make “unstated assumptions” that don’t take into account changing circumstances, and how experts may be misled by their biases, or by exaggerating the likelihood of their hypothesis, creating difficulty in seeing things another way. For example: Israeli belief in 1973 that the Arabs wouldn’t dare attack.

Investigating “how people responded to the odds of various bets involving both losses and gains” found that “people responded to probabilities not just with reason but with emotion,” Lewis says. Their 1979 “Prospect Theory,” which Lewis says was “their moment of greatest public triumph,” creating “the second-most cited paper in all of economics,” the foundation of behavioral economics used in marketing. It shows how people differently value gains and losses based on their reference point.

For example, a person given $50 usually is happier than a person given $100 but losing half of it. Related is risk aversion.

Their collaboration unraveled after newly remarried Danny moved to the United States. Amos left Israel for Stanford and was awarded a 1984 MacArthur Genius Grant for work they’d done together.

Danny then developed his “undoing” theory: how people deal with a negative event by thinking of “if only” it could have been avoided. In 2002, he won a Nobel Prize, but Amos had died of cancer in 1996 at age 59.

The Undoing Project is lively, but its novel-like development, shifting in time, creates some difficulty keeping the research and theories distinct and recalling what’s been read — worsened by lack of an index. We get no photos of the pair.

I think Lewis errs in saying that in 1967, most of Israel’s trade passed through the Straits of Tiran — meaning from Eilat port — although that was true for oil and perhaps also for trade with Asia and perhaps Africa.

The real story doesn’t begin until chapter two, after Lewis illustrates preference for data over impressions and intuition in an interminable-seeming 30 pages about how the young manager of the Houston Rockets tried to build winning NBA teams.

Lewis has given us a very interesting double biography recounting an unlikely deep friendship that deepened understanding of human behavior — a book easier to read than to follow.


Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor

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