Extra credit if you know who the gentleman in this photo is. He’s an author whose books have become so iconic that their jackets (and subjects) get much more exposure than he does. His first book (1989) was based on his financial experiences with Salomon Brothers, called “Liar’s Poker”. But if that doesn’t ring a bell, surely his 2003 best-seller that Moneyball does! That book told the story of how the Oakland A’s Billy Beane revolutionized the assessment of baseball talent based on under appreciated metrics.
That’s right – it’s Michael Lewis, who popularized mining for cognitive gold in a way that is rivaled these days only by Malcolm Gladwell. Lewis has hit pay dirt again with his new book out this week, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. The subjects of the book are two Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman, celebrated Chalutzniks who were among the first pioneers in a field now known as behavioral economics illuminated by how humans make decisions and choices.
What a brilliant, absorbing tale this is of the relationship between the two men who had an intellectual love affair that spanned 15 years. Lewis is masterful in researching and relating their synergy, and the emergence of a collaboration that resulted in elevating what they did together well beyond what either could have produced individually. Ironically Kahneman published a paper in 2003 in American Scientist, the same year that Moneyball was released, detailing his experiences in collaborative research with Tversky. In that article Danny wrote: “Amos and I shared the wonder of together owning a goose that could lay golden eggs—a joint mind that was better than our separate minds.” His remarks were excepted from the biographical information filed as part of his receiving the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.
Amos was funny with a laser sharp wit, and if you know the Israeli penchant for approaching uncertain events with certainty (part of the may cognitive biases that he and Danny explored together) you’ll appreciate this exchange that he had with one of his soldiers while serving as an officer. Refusing to wear his helmet even in combat because it was too hot, the soldier opined: “If a bullet is going to kill me, it has my name on it anyway”. To which Amos replied: “What about all those bullets addressed ‘To Whom It May Concern’?”.
Like the collaboration between most creative geniuses (think Simon & Garfunkel), its dissolution is bound to leave scars in the aftermath of its heady accomplishments, and one feels that from Kahneman’s point of view. What exactly Tversky felt can’t be known for sure because, tragically too young, he died in 1996 at the age of 59. A malignant melanoma in his eye proved to be the bellwether that his body was riddled with cancer. Within six months he was gone. But the way in which Michael Lewis weaves interviews from family members and colleagues to form his narrative will take you pretty close to the heart of the matter.