Michael Lewis’ Departure From Logic

This time the best-selling Berkeley author debunks gut instincts.


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Michael Lewis writes about certainty in his latest book.

Photo by Tabitha Soren

In many respects, 2016 has been one colossal undoing project.

From the presidential campaign that resulted in the surprising-to-some election of a man intent on dismantling the work of his predecessor to a large San Francisco-based bank whose culture pushed employees to open unauthorized customer accounts to celebrities whose tragic deaths proved that opiates, cancer, accidents, and other forces have no respect for age or fame to experts spouting opinions or pummeling us with Big Data—well, let’s just say it’s been a myth-busting year.

Which is why you might assign Berkeley writer Michael Lewis clairvoyant powers—but you shouldn’t. His new book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, chronicles the story of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They produced evidence 40 years ago that revealed experts err, especially in areas of uncertainty—political, economic, medical, and social forecasting. Out of their studies sprang the field of behavioral economics, evidence-based medicine, and more. Essentially, Lewis and his 368-page book debunk the idea that political pundits, doctors, government officials, and other thought-leaders have privileged insight and says, “Stop being so amazed that experts get things wrong—their minds do it on purpose!”

Of course, Lewis has a human mind, so although you might think that he “knew” the topic would be timely, even he fell into the “assumption” trap. As a financial journalist, he has written a number of books that pinpoint so-called experts’ misguided judgments: Moneyball, Flash Boys, The Big Short, and a half-dozen others. But he considered odd choices people made to be a mysterious phenomenon and had little idea that scientific studies exist that explain the fallibility of human imagination and the mind’s desire for certainty.

“The body of work that was totally new to me wasn’t that people are biased or have prejudices,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “What wasn’t floating around was the Undoing Project: the idea of exploring the imagination and undoing an event and the paths taken to it.”

The groundbreaking work that along the way won Tversky a MacArthur Fellow award and Kahneman the Nobel Prize in Economic Studies included, among other things, evidence that people—including data-believers—rely on stereotypes and memory over statistics and logic when making decisions. The Undoing Project itself began as a study on envy that had Kahneman inventing “disasters,” then working backward to discover their cause.

Expectation would say that Lewis was fascinated by the psychology behind decision-making, but actually, the real hook was a tragic romance. Tversky and Kahneman were scientific soul mates, a tribe of two, a collaborative team that thrived on the peculiar mix of their personalities. Tversky was outgoing, voluble, intellectually and physically flamboyant. Kahneman was awkward, anxious, gloom and doom, and brilliant. Yet they formed an intense connection: a relationship in which they completed not simply each other’s sentences, but each other’s thoughts.

“Once I met the characters, everything was fresh. Their relationship supplanted what got me to the story. It was a peculiar love story,” Lewis said.

The fact that they ultimately split up, largely due to outside academic forces fixated on assigning credit for their discoveries to one or the other man, added crucial dramatic tension. The Undoing Project was the study that marked the end of the two men’s working relationship. “It echoes our relationship with reality when making decisions—the beginning of departure from logic,” Lewis said.

Lewis spent 18 months on research that included “too many to count” interviews with Kahneman (Tversky died of cancer in 1996). A nine-month routine had him writing each morning until early afternoon. “I don’t start a book until I know how it will end. I plot in granular detail so that I have a road map and write from start to finish. Afternoons and evenings are for editing—until I get into a real bind, then all rules are gone.”

While he writes, a 20-song pop music soundtrack plays on an endless loop. “It’s ‘white noise’ that drowns out the world. It’s almost Pavlovian: When I hear the music, I start writing.”

Lewis’ favorite thing about writing is that it clears his mind. During childhood, he preferred riding his bike and playing sports. “The whole idea of being a writer was alien to me. I was in an aural, anecdotal storytelling culture. It was New Orleans,” he said. But he read voraciously: comic books and eventually, Mark Twain. “I liked wild child stories. Huckleberry Finn was my story. It was about emotional and physical freedom that allowed all kinds of weird things and strange characters.” Add to that an inability to engineer things (a radio-building project in seventh grade cost him $500 when he finally gave up and hired someone to complete it), and the sum total explains his adult fascination with quirky characters and numbers-based theories that reveal the inner workings of the human mind.

Lewis said that writing this book has made him wary of trusting his gut instincts and changed the way he talks to his three kids, who range in age from 9 to 17. “It’s caused me to back off in the words I say to my children. It’s an illusion that our criticism is handier than praise.” An increased awareness that the mind gravitates to certainty helps him understand president-elect Donald Trump’s appeal. “Instead of thinking, ‘You have to be careful, because he’s being certain and over-confident about uncertain things,’ people who voted for him wanted certainty. It’s how the mind is wired.”

The next several months will be consumed with a book tour and author appearances, and he has one scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24 at San Francisco City Arts & Lectures. Lewis isn’t sure what’s next on his horizon. “I’m flirting with Obama about doing a book with him, but it will be short,” he suggested. As for The Undoing Project, Lewis is done. “That’s the downside to getting the thing on the page,” he said. “In some weird way, finishing the book, a kind of deforesting happens. I’ve exhausted my own interest.”

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton, December 2016, 368 pp., $28.95)

 

Published online on Dec. 28, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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