A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Review: The Undoing Project

The Undoing Project: A Frienship that Changed the World
Michael Lewis

This is a good book, with many interesting passages, but it was not the one I was hoping to read. If you have even a basic familiarity with the literature on cognitive bias, you'll learn nothing new about the subject from this book. For at least some of the people who might be interested in it, then, this book has no value.

But it would be unfair to judge this as a textbook, rather than as a work of biography and intellectual history. Taking it on its own terms - I think that the introduction and first chapter could have been excised from the book without much loss. They are an extended discussion of various issues relating to Lewis' past bestseller Moneyball, intended to persuade readers that people in important positions really are prone to systematic errors and ignorance. Finally, at page 52, we are at last introduced to a seven-year-old French Jew named Danny Kahneman, caught in the midst of the Holocaust, and the book finally starts moving.

Over the next thirty pages, Danny escapes to Vichy France, faces his father's death, and emigrates straight into another war - this time the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, taking place around him in the buildings of Jerusalem. After obtaining a degree, he is drafted into the Israeli army, and in a story I recognised from Thinking, Fast and Slow overhauls the process by which officers are selected and sent to the various Israeli armed forces.

The third chapter covers the same period through the eyes of Golden Boy Amos Tversky. After an excellent foray through education, he becomes a daredevil paratrooper and the centre of attention at numerous parties. The character portrayed comes across as quite incredible: "the man had a preternatural gift for doing only precisely what he wanted to do." He jets off to Michigan for his PhD, rips holes through a bunch of theories, and returns to Israel with an American wife.

Soon after his homecoming, the Six-Day War breaks out. Nowadays we think of this war as a great triumph for Israel, but the book is keen to impress that, for a small nation like Israel, even an overwhelming victory was Pyrrhic. Eventually they are both working at Hebrew University, and - after four chapters and 141 pages - they are eventually mentioned in the same sentence.

Somewhere around this point, there is a brief but amusing digression on Israeli academic culture, and in particular on the glorious lack of respect shown for academics by their students. It's not that academics weren't taken seriously - Kahneman's military work was only the tip of the iceberg in the vast engagement by academics into public policy in early modern Israel - but that, if you thought someone was wrong, you weren't shy about it. There is an anecdote of a student who is judged to have gone too far in his criticism of a visiting speaker, and is pushed to apologise. "I'm sorry," he says, "but I couldn't help it, you were just so wrong!"

Danny engages in a fine display of this attitude at an early meeting with Amos, who is presenting some work by his former supervisor attempting to show that people intuitively apply Bayes' Theorem in their everyday lives. Danny finds this ridiculous, and manages to shake Amos with his criticism. Eventually, they get to working together - and the rest, of course, is history.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment to me was the lack of light shed by this book on how Kahneman and Tversky actually discovered the cognitive biases in operation. Thinking, Fast and Slow tells a vague story of asking each other questions and trying to observe how they went about answering them; The Undoing Project has, if anything, even less detail. We see very few of the half-baked ideas and failed experiments that characterise most intellectual inquiry. Aside from a brief inquiry into the psychology that was discarded shortly before the formulation of Prospect Theory, the best one can hope for is a puzzle which had to be explained, with no explanation of how Kahneman and Tversky stumbled onto it. No alternative theories that ended up being thrown out, no signs of the process of investigation.

Over the course of the 1970s their work, and Amos, grow in stature. There are chapters devoted to the development of their ideas in various directions - Don Redelmeier's work in medicine (which was entirely new to me), Richard Thaler and the ongoing behavioural economics revolution. But this all begins unwinding when Danny leaves his family and subsequently decided to marry a British psychologist named Anne Treisman. This necessitates his leaving Israel - and so, to continue their collaborations, Amos' leaving too. Amos has no difficulty picking up a plum job at Stanford; Danny, however, struggles and ends up in Vancouver. The problem is an apparent (unexplained) tendency by other professionals to assume that Amos is overwhelmingly responsible for their joint work.

They continue collaborating, but these differences in status pile up and pile pressure on the relationship. Amos doesn't like this any more than anyone, and is at great pains to assure people that Danny is the true genius - in everything except his conversations with Danny. After years of growing tension, Danny eventually snaps and breaks the whole thing off in the early 90s. What followed might have been a very ugly period, except that not three days later Tversky is diagnosed with a melanoma and given six months to live.

This helps patch things up between them. There is a very brief discussion of Kahneman's life after Tversky: how he finally moved out of the shadow as came to be recognised as a great academic in his own right, and ending upon his receipt, in 2002, of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but can't in good conscience recommend you spend £25 on it. If you're looking to learn about the ideas, then Thinking, Fast and Slow is more thorough and has more practical implications; if you're looking for a good story, then there are far better examples in both fiction and non-fiction. This is a good book to dip into, and to leave lying on your coffee table as a display of your awareness of intellectual fashion. There are plenty of interesting moments, especially while they're still in Israel, but the first half in particular is disjointed and, ultimately, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything in here which could be classed as profound.

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