Book Review: The Undoing Project

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The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis, is a well-written story about two people who developed some important ideas. This book is a well-told story, but that’s both its strength and its weakness.

The story is about the ideas and relationship of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. They are two Israeli psychologists who wrote a paper that was published in the journal Science in 1974 about the systematic ways that we often make mistakes in our thinking and decision-making. Knowing that, here are some ideas about who will like this book.

Who Should Read This Book

If you’ve heard something about heuristics and biases in decision-making, or if someone has recommended that you read Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, but you don’t know if you’re quite ready for that, this book will be a great read. By telling the story about the development of the ideas that Kahneman and Tversky produced, you get a brief introduction to most of them and to why they’re important.

If you like good stories about how creative people work together to produce great things, you should like this book, too. Kahneman/Tversky’s relationship was what some psychologists call a “fertile pair.” It is as much an intellectual marriage as it is a partnership, and the story of the relationship is intertwined with the development of both the ideas and the participants.

If what you want is a simple introduction to heuristics and biases in decision-making, this probably won’t do the trick. It’s the story of how two psychologists developed their thinking, so you’ll pick up some things, but it’s the story of the relationship of Tversky and Kahneman and not a treatise on heuristics and biases.

What’s in the Book

Lewis opens the book with a story about Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, and how he set out to use data to improve the decisions involved in running that team by basing those decisions on evidence, data. He quickly discovered that while data was important, there seemed to be problems in the way that people used data, the way they think. No matter how good the data is, human beings make predictable and systematic errors in the way we think and make decisions. The work of Tversky and Kahneman is all about those predictable and systematic errors.

From the Rockets, Lewis takes us to World War II and occupied Paris to introduce us to the young Daniel Kahneman. He migrates to Israel where he and Amos Tversky meet. Kahneman is quiet and self-effacing and French. Lewis describes Tversky as “a swaggering sabra. They form one of the most productive partnerships in modern science, even though they are very different people.

That difference is a source of tension and problems, but it’s also the source of the rich ideas they developed together. Because it’s a story about their relationship and not a book about decision-making, Lewis leaves out a lot. For example, if you only read this book, you will think that Kahneman and Tversky coined the phrase “heuristics.” (Location 2407) That’s not the case.

One of my majors in college was Management Science. I learned there were basically three kinds of problems. Some problems could be reliably solved with a recipe. If you got the right ingredients and put them through the right process, you would get a reliably good solution. Other problems required creative solutions because they were unique.

Between those two, there was a class of decisions which I learned could be solved with heuristics, which were defined as guidelines or rules of thumb. Don Sull’s recent book, Simple Rules, is a good introduction to that way of thinking.

Lewis is writing a book about Kahneman and Tversky and their relationship and their work. He includes things which help tell that story. He leaves out thing which don’t help move the story along. And he does everything he can to help us see the world through the lens of the Kahneman/Tversky relationship.

Take the case of Gerd Gigerenzer. He’s a German psychologist. If the only thing you read about him is Lewis’s book, you’ll see him as an irrational and jealous opponent of Kahneman and Tversky. But that’s not the whole story, by a long shot.

Gigerenzer comes from the point of view of Herman Simon, the American psychologist who gave us the terms “suboptimize” and “satisfice.” Gigerenzer starts from the idea that humans have bounded rationality and he sees heuristics (decision rules) as a way to make decision-making in certain situations better and faster. You might want to know more about his background, and thoughts, but Michael Lewis only gives you the part of his work that’s relevant for his story about Kahneman and Tversky.

Bottom Line

If you want to read a great story of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and the ideas they developed, pick up this book and read it. You’ll love it.

If all you want is an introduction to those ideas without the story of their development, read Kahneman and Tversky’s 1974 paper from the journal Science. The title is “Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.” The basics that they outline there still rule a lot of the discussion.

If you want a brief but helpful discussion of heuristics as guidelines or rules of thumb, pick up a copy of Don Sull’s book, Simple Rules.

If you want to go deep into Kahneman and Tversky’s ideas, you’re going to have to pick up Kahneman’s great book, Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s a book that will take some effort to read because the ideas are dense, and even though they are well-presented, they’re not cloaked in the clothes of story. If you’re willing to do the work, though, Thinking Fast and Slow may be one of the most important books you ever read. It’s that importance that spurred Michael Lewis on to writing The Undoing Project.


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