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The Undoing Project

By Michael Lewis

They were fascinated by why people do “stupid things.” They judged conventional thinking, as ineffective and flawed. Common sense intuition and statistical number crunching used by experts were ridiculed as misjudgments. Many contemporary economists became defensive while two Israeli part-time academics and part-time soldiers collaborated over a 30-year period to find superior problem solving techniques that changed the way people make decisions.

Author Michael Lewis’ book, The Undoing Project, explains how Amos Tversky – an extroverted, unconventional statistician – partnered with introverted psychologist Danny Kahneman to challenge the reasoning processes of experts in economics, government, the military, business, the health industry and more. It turned problem solving upside down and within 30 years created a new way of thinking and a new discipline – behavioral economics.

Lewis writes that he unknowingly profiled the Tversky-Kahneman methods in his bestselling book Moneyball, which published in 2003. Moneyball explained the extraordinary success of the sparsely funded Oakland Athletics, which exploited the inefficiencies of richer teams in order to beat them. The A’s thought outside of the box by building teams with more affordable players that were considered inferior by the professional recruiters. By “undoing” the mindset of conventional thinking, the team gained a significant winning advantage over better-funded organizations.

Problem solving is tough. Using new ways of problem solving can be even tougher. To move our minds from habits learned in our social and professional circles is radical. It can threaten those who reinforce our friendship or work groups. Using the problem solving methods of our group leaves individuals in their comfort zone – feeling accepted and safe.

Tversky and Kahneman were different. Loyal to the new nation of Israel, they explored decision making comfort zones – heuristics. They viewed the processes and outcomes of many problem solving methods as inefficient. As young Israeli men in the 1950s and 60s, they lived in a constant state of flux. Change and uncertainty was their reality; conventions were rare. The people they knew or befriended came from different regions in the world with different mindsets. They were young, daring and intelligent. They moved beyond convention to explore possibilities while trying to serve to keep their new country viable and safe.

Lewis explores the diversity of the Israeli environment and the challenges of each day as people adapted to war, food shortages, new rules and enemies. Survival required flexibility and creativity. Minds reacted and adapted quickly. Clear, sharp assessments were critical.

The book is packed with stories showing the collaboration of two opposite personalities fixated on solving the problem of flawed decision making. Well researched, The Undoing Project provides a substantive overview of struggles to define and refine and legitimize a new way of thinking. For history buffs, the book gives new insights into the growth of Israel and the can-do personalities needed to deal with chaotic circumstances.

A book worth reading, The Undoing Project is heavy with details and would benefit from a short introduction and summary in each chapter. Most importantly, it would help to have a final chapter that serves as a synthesis by compressing the accomplishments of Amos and Danny into a chronology of how their methods are used and the benefits of using them. Lastly, a few pictures would be nice for those like me who are visual learners. That said, it is easy to go online to find more history and pictures of both men. Tversky died in 1996 and Kahneman continues to be active. He can be seen online on popular sessions such as TED Talks.

Lucia Worthington is a writer and professor of business and management at Clark College. To recommend a book for review, email bookreviews@vbjusa.com.

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