Author: Michael Lewis
APA Style Citation
Lewis, M. (2017). The undoing project. W.W. Norton & Company.
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This story starts with two brilliant men on their own, who become an inseparable pair, and finally experience a tragic breakup. Author Michael Lewis, shares the remarkable story of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky in The Undoing Project. The story leaves the reader rooting for the pair at times, and struck at other times by the human nature of self-doubt and competitiveness that kept these two apart.
Danny Kahneman’s story starts with the German occupation of Paris and his family’s move to Palestine in 1946. It was in Israel that Danny built his own identity. After graduating from Hebrew University with a degree in psychology, he was required to serve in the Israeli army. He was assigned to the psychology unit. Danny was responsible for evaluating candidates for officer training school. The interview method of new recruits often led to a general impression, and he wanted to avoid human judgment. He created a personality test and the scores on the personality test predicted the recruit’s success at any job. The results became known as the “Kahneman score.” With minor adjustments it is still used today. He also helped the Israeli Air Force train fighter pilots and taught a course on perception. Danny was known as a genius in the classroom, but outside of the classroom, he was insecure. His mood was volatile and criticism often set him off. In 1965, he went to the University of Michigan for postdoctoral study. He was going to return to Hebrew University, but when his tenure was refused, he went to Harvard. He eventually put his feelings aside and returned to Hebrew University and studied attention.
Amos Tversky was an Israeli paratrooper, who was well-respected by his peers. When Hebrew University forced him to pick a concentration, he chose psychology. He rarely took notes and often taught himself. While in school, he came across a paper on the economic theory of decision-making that sparked his interest. In 1961, he left for the University of Michigan due to a lack of teachers at Hebrew University. In 1966, Amos returned to Israel with a wife and new interests.
Even though Amos and Danny were both at the University of Michigan at the same time, they rarely crossed paths. They didn’t seem to mix well together and often argued. The two met for a few lunches, but then went their separate ways. In 1969, both had returned to Hebrew University and in a twist of fate became inseparable. Two people with totally different personalities became soul mates. Danny thought he was always wrong, and Amos was sure he was right. Danny’s office was a mess, while Amos had a pencil on his desk. As they wrote together, you could hear laughter coming from the room. Amos helped Danny feel confident. They also taught a class together at Hebrew University, but it didn’t go very well from Danny’s point of view. They either finished each other’s sentences or were competing with one another. Their relationship was intense.
In 1973, Arab countries attacked Israel. Despite being abroad at the time, Amos and Danny headed back home to fight another war. They were both assigned to the psychology field unit where they were tasked to improve morale. With enthusiasm, they headed out to the battlefield. Danny would jump from the car and question people. He had the gift of finding solutions to problems when others failed. They analyzed the garbage left by the soldiers and supplied them with what they really wanted (canned grapefruit). They also looked at how tank drivers learned better in small bursts of time. Amos helped create a questionnaire to diagnose psychological trauma. While they were both excited about decision-making before the war, they lost faith in decision analysis after the war. How could the Israeli intelligence fail to anticipate the attack? Danny was beginning to realize decisions were made on stories, not numbers.
Soon after, Danny and Amos appear to have lose their way. They went back and forth on ideas and struggled to follow through. At one point Danny remembers Amos declaring, “We’re finished with judgement. Let’s do decision making.” By 1975, the two were working on risk-value theory. This was Amos’s field, so he did most of the talking. They explored the isolation effect and framing. It was during this time that Danny left his family and declared his love to Anne Treisman. Anne refused to move to Israel, so Danny moved to take a position beside her in Vancouver. Amos and Danny’s relationship began to crack.
For most of the 1980s, Amos was a professor of behavioral science at Stanford University and Danny was at the University of British Columbia. They agreed to take turns flying to visit each other on weekends. Danny was working on new ideas, and while Amos seemed interested, he didn’t contribute. Danny shared his new work on the rules of undoing and was excited about receiving the glory. When asked after a talk about where the ideas came from, Amos said, “Danny and I don’t talk about these things.” To Danny this was the beginning of the end of them. When asked about Amos, Danny said they were no longer working together. Danny began to collaborate with someone else on a paper. Meanwhile, Amos was sprinting around giving his own lectures and talking with the Soviet Union. Amos was interested in Danny’s thoughts, but they were no longer in the same room. With the separation, ideas became more personal, which was not the case when the two began working together. There was tension and they struggled to collaborate.
In 1983, the two were approached by a Harvard psychiatrist, Miles Shore, who was writing a book on people who worked together for at least five years and produced interesting work. Danny shared how it was hard since he got married and moved to North America. Amos was vague, but many of the problems had happened since leaving Israel. Danny admitted feeling like he was in Amos’s shadow. However, it was believed that the worst was behind them, and they would move forward together. In 1984, Amos received the MacArthur “genius” grant. Even though the work was done with Danny, his name was not mentioned. Amos was the brilliant one and Danny was the careful one. Danny noticed the sole attention Amos was receiving for their joint work.
Throughout the 1980s, they appeared to be still working together. Their work was being criticized, but it failed to bring them together. Danny disliked conflict and would not review papers that made him angry. Amos embraced conflict. He wanted to write an article, to demonstrate the power of heuristics. His favorite vignette was about Linda (see activity). Danny gave the “Linda problem” to 12 students at his university, and all fell for it. When giving participants just the two alternatives being tested, 85% still insisted Linda was more likely to be a bank teller in the feminist movement. They wrote a paper and ended the argument about whether the mind reasoned probabilistically. The paper was jointly written, but it was painful for the two.
In 1986, Danny moved to Berkley and soon after went into a depression. He saw Amos often, but it was causing more pain. He wrote a letter to Amos acknowledging their relationship had changed. Danny wanted Amos to correct the perception that they were not equal partners. However, Amos lashed out and hurt Danny deeply when he shared that Harvard had wanted only him and not the both of them. Danny left Berkley for Princeton and wanted Amos out of his mind. Amos was hurt and couldn’t understand the need for the distance. Amos still wanted to write a book together, but in Danny’s mind, they were over.
In 1993, Amos asked Danny to help him silence a critic. Danny was more sympathetic and wanted to reason with the critic. He agreed to help as a friend, but was soon miserable. Danny was staying with Amos in New York when he had a dream that he was told he only had six months to live and he didn’t want to be working on this garbage. When he told Amos of the dream, he scolded him and said he would expect him to finish this with him. Shortly after this incident, Danny read a list of new members of the National Academy of Sciences, to which Amos belonged for nearly a decade, and his name was still not on the list. Danny was hurt and walked out on his friend. Three days later, Amos called and told him he had malignant melanoma. He had six months to live. In May, he gave his final lecture at Stanford and few even guessed that he was ill. Danny spoke to Amos almost daily leading up to his death. They were writing together, but Amos died before they could finish their last project. He died on June 2, 1996.
In 2002, Danny won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in applying psychology to economics, especially in the areas of judgment and decision-making under uncertainty. The two disciplines of psychology and economics have struggled to work together. But from the work of these two greats came the discipline “behavioral economics.” In addition, the US government has become sensitive to framing and loss aversion. The food pyramid turned into MyPlate and Americans could more easily see a healthy diet thanks to psychology. Amos and Danny’s work showed economists and policymakers the importance of psychology. It had practical importance and was not just stuff done in a lab.
Note: If recommending this book to students, be aware there is a limited amount of swear words used in the book.
Other Related Resources
New York Times- From Michael Lewis, the Story of Two Friends Who Change How we Think About How We Think
The New Yorker- The Two Friends Who Changed How We Think About How We Think
Psychological Concepts and Figures
Cocktail party effect
Heuristics (availability and representativeness)
Mϋller-Lyer optical illusion
Myers-Briggs personality test
Regression to the mean