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The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

February 11th, 2019 · Posted by Skuds in Life · No Comments · Life

I have had this book sitting on my Kindle for ages, having snapped it up as the £1 deal of the day some time ago. Last week I finally got round to reading it, and what a book it is. It was, at the same time, exactly what I expected but also nothing like what I expected.I have been interested in behavioural economics for a while now, and absolutely lapped up the Daniel Kahneman book Thinking Fast and Slow, which is a completely life-changing book. As part of my reading around the subject I kept coming across the name of Amos Tversky as Kahneman’s co-author on a lot of papers but really didn’t know anything else about him. Because Kahneman was the one with the best-selling book and the Nobel prize I always thought of him as the main man and Tversky as incidental, but nothing could be further from the truth.

I know know a lot better, as The Undoing Project describes how the two met and worked together in such a symbiotic way that they were effectively one entity with two bodies. In fact, if anything, Tversky was the superstar. When moving to America, it was Tversky that the various universities wanted to attract.

Kahneman is the big name now, mainly because Amos Tversky died. According to the book, he was very likely to receive the Nobel prize himself, but when the subject was raised with him he only had months to live and the Nobels are never posthumous.

For a story about two academics developing theories about how the mind works, it is a really gripping read, full of ups and downs. I know I am in a heightened emotional state because of all the chemotherapy drugs I am on myself, but towards the end of the book I did have to stop and wipe away tears and I suspect I would have been the same even without the drugs. I really was not expecting such strong reactions to an ostensibly dry book.

Having already read the Freakonomics books, Kahhneman, Dan Ariely, Richard Thaler and other behavioural economics-related books, this filled in a lot of blanks for me and put everything else into context. You don’t need to have read those other books first but I can almost guarantee that if you read this  book first you will want to explore some of the others.

On top of all that there was another bonus aspect to this book. It starts with Kahneman’s experiences hiding from the Nazis in Europe during the war, and later travelling to Israel when it was founded, then his experiences with the Israeli military. Although not the main point of the book, it gave a real insight to how it must have felt to be Jewish at that time and in that place. The feeling of persecution and potential destruction by the surrounding Arab states really comes across. The incidental details of how anybody and everybody had to drop everything when the six-day war and the Yom Kippur war kicked off and dig out their uniforms. University professors walking out of lectures and going back to being a paratrooper or tank commander, and then back at lectures a week later. It must have felt like living under seige conditions.

It probably helps to explain and understand the Israeli attitudes to national survival better than a book written just for that purpose. I especially liked the little detail about Amos Tversky, who had been a paratrooper. When he first flew to America he realised something and slightly freaked out the person next to him when he blurted out that he had flown many times but had never been in a plane when it landed.

All together a fascinating book about two fascinating people and their unique working relationship. It is a mixture of biography, journalism and story-telling. I am now determined to read more of Michael Lewis’s books like Moneyball and Flash Boys even if they sound heavy going because I am now convinced that Lewis will make even Wall Street trading and American sports interesting.

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