Wikimedia Commons U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and his advisors discuss Vietnam in the White House, October 1968.

Mind Games

The Partnership That Upended Social Science

In This Review

The Undoing Project
By Michael Lewis
Norton, 2016
368 pp.

“We study natural stupidity instead of artificial intelligence.” That was how Amos Tversky described his collaboration with Daniel Kahneman, a partnership between two Israeli psychologists that produced some of the twentieth century’s most important findings about how the mind works. Through a series of ingenious experiments, Kahneman and Tversky discovered systematic biases in the way humans estimate probabilities and, in so doing, revolutionized the study and practice of economics, medicine, law, and public policy. If Tversky had not died in 1996, at the age of 59, he would most likely have shared the Nobel Prize in Economics awarded to Kahneman in 2002.

Michael Lewis has written an original and absorbing account of the 20-year partnership and the ideas it generated. The author of such bestsellers as Liar’s Poker and Moneyball, Lewis discovered Kahneman and Tversky belatedly. Unbeknownst to him, they had provided the scientific basis for the phenomenon he chronicled in Moneyball—namely, how baseball scouts tended to eschew statistical indicators of a player’s past performance, relying instead on their subjective impressions of whether his look and build matched what they thought made a baseball player great. Kahneman and Tversky called this “the representativeness heuristic,” a cognitive shortcut used to assess events and individuals in terms of their fit with a preconceived notion. The problem, they found, was that this shortcut often led to errors. Moneyball told the story of how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, built a winning team by doing away with intuition in favor of cold, hard statistics. 

Lewis devotes a healthy chunk of The Undoing Project to detailing Kahneman and Tversky’s experiments and explaining their significance in an accessible way. His summaries of their key papers are competent, although he shies away from raising critical questions about their work, perhaps feeling that it is not his place to do so. His discussion of some of their theories can also come across as truncated. Fortunately for readers, however, it is now possible

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