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Book Review: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
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Book Review: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis

An auditorium full of statisticians is presented a scenario, a question of probability with a definite answer. Despite their expertise, most of them get the answer wrong.

A group of doctors review a patient’s symptoms and, despite knowing the odds favor other explanations, most of them suggest a far less likely diagnosis.

Some patients undergoing a painful medical procedure experience the most discomfort near the end of the examination. Other patients are given the same procedure, but rather than end it at the moment of greatest pain, they are taken a few minutes longer into a period of slightly less discomfort. Despite experiencing the same maximum pain, the patients who experience less pain near the end report a more positive experience, and a greater inclination to have the procedure again as recommended a year later.

What’s going on here? In each case, people are intellectually aware of the truth of a situation, but their intuition convinces them to act or decide against their knowledge. In each case, intuition is demonstrably almost always wrong. The capacity for the human mind to construct an alternate narrative that better suits its preferences in evaluation and decision-making is the lifelong study of two renowned psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.

The collaboration between Tversky and Kahneman is as strange as it is well known. During hours-long conversations behind locked office doors, the professors attacked conventional wisdom in the study of decision-making through a partnership so complete that even while pressed, neither could remember which ideas in their research belonged to which. They decided with the toss of a coin the order in which their names would appear on their first paper, and agreed simply to alternate whose name would go first on all future papers. In a domain where recognition for original ideas is the greatest professional capital, these partners seemed more concerned about the value of their work than the individual contributions of either.

Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (Norton, 2016) is a singular love story. In every way but sexual, Tversky and Kahneman were life partners, opposite personalities who brought out the best in each other, whose work together was so intellectually intimate that their professional relationship was a challenge to their personal relationships with wives and children. The work they published is referenced, directly or indirectly, in most scientific papers related to their fields of study. Why and how do we convince ourselves to act against our better judgments, and how much can our intuitions be trusted? The Tversky-Kahneman body of work in this area is fascinating and convicting.

Lewis has made a career of explaining complicated concepts—often, like this one, economics-related—by telling interesting stories about unique people whose lives illustrate these concepts. In his latest book, he takes what seems to be the opposite approach. He doesn’t seem so much to be explaining decision-making science by telling the stories of the leaders in the field as to be exploring their story by way of explaining the science. The difference is subtle in execution though it appears huge by the story’s end.

The author’s approach is noticeably less clinical and somewhat emotional, and builds to a payoff at the end that works pretty well, reliant mostly on the relationship premise Lewis constructs his story upon. This payoff depends less on emotion-laden language and more on the details of how the brilliant work of these two scientists came to be.

It’s not a typical Michael Lewis book in this way, but it’s a fascinating read for this relationship and for the cognitive framework the relationship presents. It is strongly recommended.

 

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Book Review: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis - Executive Leadership Articles

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