Nilanjana S Roy: Beautiful minds, flawed human minds

How important is friendship to creativity and scientific thought? In recent times, many biographies and memoirs have begun to map the relationships of writers, scientists, artists and thinkers not just by their most meaningful romances or marital unions, but by the quality and intensity of their friendships. 

“Marriage” takes up perhaps too much space as a concept. It is a pity that English lacks the words to describe other kinds of close and life-changing, intellectual relationships and partnerships, with their own complicated rhythms, life-cycles and endings. Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project: The Friendship That Changed Our Minds is an account of a truly remarkable partnership, set down in his trademark lucid and perceptive style.

In the spring of 1972, the cognitive and mathematical psychologist Amos Tversky jotted down a short series of notes on a scrap of paper, summarising conversations he’d had with his collaborator, Daniel Kahneman.

People predict by making up stories
People predict very little and explain everything
People live under uncertainty whether they like it or not
People believe they can tell the future if they work hard enough
People accept any explanation as long as it fits the facts

Their paper on the psychology of prediction was one of their many landmark contributions to the study of human decision-making, and its fallibility. Their research demonstrated that from sports announcers and political pundits to historians, humans tended to impose false order on random events — which made it harder to see what might occur in the future.

In 2002, Mr Kahneman was one of the winners of the Nobel Prize in economics; Tversky was cited by the academy, but he had died in 1996, and the Nobel is not awarded posthumously. Over time, their work has profoundly changed the way that humans understand “the pitfalls and fallacies of their own reasoning”, the knotty question of why we do what we do. 

Mr Lewis discovered Mr Kahneman and Tversky’s work only after he’d published Moneyball and suggested he read Mr Kahneman and Tversky for more detailed explanations of flawed decision-making. 

There was a natural connection between Mr Lewis’s previous books – investigations of risk-takers, high-frequency traders, financial panics, in short, investigations of human error made by highly qualified experts – and the research of this pair. 

In the first chapter of The Undoing Project, Mr Lewis writes, of bias and errors in decision-making. “But this raised a bigger question: Why had so much conventional wisdom been bullshit? And not just in sports but across the whole society? Why had so many industries been ripe for disruption? Why was there so much to be undone?”

A fascinating, and unnerving, aspect of The Undoing Project and of Mr Kahneman and Tversky’s research is that it’s hard for us to see our own biases. Even if you recognise the flaws in your thinking, it’s still incredibly difficult to stop acting on those biases — as an aside, one of the reasons why fake news is so effective, because it succeeds in grabbing the mind’s attention and influencing perception, even when you know that the news is wrong.

Mr Kahneman and Tversky came from completely different backgrounds, with haunting, compelling pasts. Daniel Kahneman insisted often that his past had no effect on his view of the world, or the world’s view of him. He mistrusts memory, and his prevailing emotion, Mr Lewis and others note, is doubt. His family were caught in wartime Europe, fleeing as the Nazis hunted down Jews. One of his early memories – he shared his early experiences only reluctantly, after he’d won the Nobel – was from when he was nine, his parents in a big bed, he in a small one.

“And I would pray to God. And the prayer was: I know you are very busy and that this is a tough time and all that. I don’t want to ask for much but I want to ask for one more day.” Much later, Mr Lewis writes, Mr Kahneman’s work would tackle the role of memory in human judgment — the memory of how the Germans had behaved in one war, for instance, distorted the expectations the French had of them in another war.

Tversky, outgoing, strongly individualistic, an optimist in contrast to Mr Kahneman’s cautious pessimism, “the freest, happiest and most interesting person anyone knew” had grown up in Israel, a Sabra who served as a paratrooper. The two met at the University of Michigan, and Mr Lewis tracks their unusual collaboration with immense depth and delicacy.

Mr Kahneman had a hundred ideas a minute; Tversky brought an incredible energy and mathematical exactness to their discussions. When Mr Kahneman began exploring bias: “It was as if he had been assigned to take apart a fiendishly complicated alarm clock to see why it wasn’t working, only to discover that an important part of the clock was inside his own mind.”

When the partnership finally dissolved, the reasons were complex, and the parting traumatic for both. “I sort of divorced him,” Mr Kahneman said. But three days after Danny left, walking out on their last collaboration, Amos called him with bad news: He had cancer, just six months to live.

One of the things Amos Tversky had said will likely stay with you: “It is sometimes easier to make this world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.” Over time, their work has changed so much of human behaviour, from sports and policy to law. It is a tribute to Mr Lewis that he makes readers see their brilliance, and also Mr Kahneman’s continuing work — there is so much left to do, and undo.

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