The Undoing Project

December 29, 2016

It is hard not to like one of Michael Lewis‘ books.  The Undoing Project is no exception. It is the excellent tracing of a relationship that changed how we do things: How we view economics. How we view medicine. How we think about thinking.

I spent some time in the basement of my grad school giving people psychological tests that included electric shocks while testing their responses and opportunities to retaliate. We learned how humans make mistakes, even then.

I have always liked the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. I wished I had heard of them in grad school. We could have used their work in our own. Yet even with my background some of their work is rather impenetrable. Often for the reasons they are revealing as flaws in human logic.

Lewis, in his usual way, is able to take a difficult subject and make it understandable, interesting and very human. Like he did for Moneyball and Blind Side, this book is not just about the foundations of Behavioural Economics; it is about the guys who did the work and the agony and challenges doing it presented.

Then in the middle of the story, the book switches to the Sunnybrook Hospital Trauma Centre, a facility I happened to have visited twice this summer (and not for professional purposes), to show how Kahneman and Tversky’s work has created impact on astute medical diagnoses. And later how that approach led us to understand the danger of speaking on cell phones while driving. These and other ways that humans underestimate or overestimate risks associated with actions and behaviours.

Every business person should read this book and then look objectively at what they do and how they are deceived by their own perceptions of their work. Well, not just business people, really, everybody. Your brain software has adapted for the use of a smallish primate that wants food, shelter and sex. It has not adapted for texting, buying derivatives, or planning retirement or many other of the things that we think we are good at. And often fail at.

The book tracks Kahneman and Tversky as they come out of Israel and to North America – Kahneman to the University of British Columbia and Tversky to California. Then how their collaboration breaks down after ten and more years. A collaboration that breaks down due to the pressures of society and the personalities of the collaborators. It covers the areas of their research quite well, showing how easy it is to fool humans through the different mistakes our thinking makes.

I especially liked the ending, which uses the story technique to lead us in one direction, before knocking us over with the last sentence.

Keep it up Michael Lewis. I have enjoyed your reports since hearing you on This American Life maybe 20 years ago.

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