2017 Literacy Throwdown Book Review! – The Undoing Project

The Undoing Project is the latest book from Michael Lewis, the author of lots and lots of good and very successful books like Moneyball and The Big Short. He’s set a pretty high bar, but it’s safe to say that his latest is not his best effort.

The Undoing Project tells the tale of two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, their partnership and their role in the transformation of psychological thought in the 20th century.

I’m a pretty strong skeptic of anyone who tells me he has a firm grip on how the human mind works. A psychology degree means about the same to me as a certificate from the National Astrology Association. Nevertheless, I’m a fan of Lewis’ previous work, so I was looking forward to his take on this subject. And maybe the material is just over my head, but there were so many things in the book that were obviously dumb, unexplained, or under-explained, that the end product just doesn’t hang together.

A lot of Kahneman and Tversky’s research focuses on why people make decisions, or more specifically, why they make bad decisions. Their premise is that the mind has systematic problems with how it perceives reality, and so it deceives us into making the “wrong” decision. This point — that the brain deceives us — is made over and over again, using different examples and anecdotes. The problem with this theory is that if my mind is lying to me, then Kahneman’s and Tversky’s minds are lying to them too. When someone says to me, “You can’t trust anyone,” that makes me say, “Doesn’t that mean I can’t trust you?”

And again, maybe their theories are great, and they’re only explained poorly. The book has an overall thrown-together quality. Some things are stuck into the book in such a way that it makes one think that after Lewis finished writing it, he stumbled across some notes and thought, “Hey, I meant to include this too!”

But over and over (and over and over and over) in the book Lewis tells us what incandescent geniuses Kahneman and Tversky are. After a certain point, this stops seeming like a statement of fact and starts seeming like insistence. I remain unconvinced. It’s obvious that these guys have had a lot of influence on Lewis. They’ve had slightly less on me.

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