You know Michael Lewis, even if you don’t recognize his name. Three of his books have been made into bestselling movies: how data analysis changed the face of baseball recruiting in Moneyball; how a football player defied the odds of his impoverished upbringing in The Blind Side; and how Wall Street caused the 2008 financial crisis in The Big Short.
Lewis has a keen eye for finding unusual, complex subjects and spinning them into absolutely unforgettable stories. In The Undoing Project, he introduces us to two Israeli psychologists who changed the way we think about human decision-making.
Amos Tversky was born to Russian parents who fled persecution in the 1920s and helped establish Israel. He became a paratrooper, earning one of the Israeli army’s top awards for bravery for saving a fellow soldier. Daniel Kahneman was just 10 years old when his family fled Paris, hiding in barns and chicken coops to avoid the rapidly advancing Nazis. The Kahnemans moved to Jerusalem in 1947, and Danny, identified as intellectually gifted, was allowed to bypass military service and enroll in college.
Both ended up teaching psychology at Hebrew University. Where Kahneman was a “bold genius” while teaching, he was moody and unsure of himself. Tversky, on the other hand, “was the most terrifying mind most people had ever encountered,” and supremely self-confident. The two began collaborating, forming a decades-long, sometimes rocky partnership that worked, in large part, because they were so different.
“Amos was a one-man wrecking ball for illogical arguments; when Danny heard an illogical argument, he asked, What might that be true of?” Lewis writes.
Together, through years of experimentation, they proved that our all-too-human minds make judgments based not on logic or numbers, but on memory and stereotypes. Their groundbreaking work had major implications for many fields, from medicine to sports to economics. For example, the Houston Rockets passed on shooting guard Jeremy Lin, a Chinese-American from Harvard, despite their data model showing him to be a top draft pick. Why? Because they saw a “not terribly athletic Asian kid.” Stereotype trumped information, and they missed out on a star player.
The Undoing Project is a thoroughly fascinating look at psychology, academia and life in mid-century Israel. Ultimately, though, it is the story of two unlikely, deeply connected friends who changed the way we think about the way we think.