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The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis
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Michael Lewis, the author of The Big Short, has long had a “gift for humanising complex and abstract ideas”, said Tim Adams in The Observer. In his latest book, he applies this gift to Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, a pair of Israeli psychologists who met in Tel Aviv in the late 1960s and became the “Lennon and McCartney of behavioural psychology”. For more than a decade, they enjoyed an intellectual “bromance” that transformed our understanding of human decision-making. In paper after paper, they demonstrated that we arrive at decisions “emotionally, not rationally”, and that, moreover, such “subconscious biases” are systematically ingrained – founding the discipline of behavioural economics in the process. Tversky and Kahneman “arguably did as much to define our world as, say, the intertwining between Francis Crick and James Watson”. In 2002, six years after Tversky’s death, this achievement was belatedly recognised when Kahneman was awarded a Nobel Prize for economics. The Undoing Project is a compelling, often “revelatory” book.

The friendship at the heart of this “beautifully organised” book was often “bewildering”, said Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times. Tversky, the younger of the pair by three years, was a “systematic” thinker and “buoyant character”; Kahneman, by contrast, was anxious, downbeat and “driven by intuition”. Yet when they were alone together, “something happened”. “Passers-by would hear shouting and roars of laughter.” They “seemed to become one mind”. In the end, this is less a book about cognitive psychology than a love story, said Robert Colvile in The Daily Telegraph. What “really mattered” about Kahneman and Tversky was “the fire they lit in each other”. This “bond” was so important that Tversky even followed his friend to the US in the late 1970s – though the move ultimately led to the “ruin of their friendship”. Kahneman grew increasingly resentful of the acclaim and attention heaped upon his more “charismatic” co-author.

Three decades ago, the insight that we are all irrational may have been news, said Daniel Finkelstein in The Times. But isn’t it just common sense nowadays? “Has Lewis written a book about the discovery of the bleedin’ obvious?” Not at all: Kahneman and Tversky helped dismantle the idea, then the economic orthodoxy, that people are “rational agents”; and they did this “against much resistance”. As such, they were real “pioneers”. This “absorbing” and “dazzling” book gives them due credit for their achievement.

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