The Atlantic

The Friendship That Created Behavioral Economics

A conversation with Michael Lewis about his new book on the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky
Source: Jonas Ekstromer / AP

The term “the economic man,” or homo economicus, is attributed to John Stuart Mill. It represents one way economists have studied people for decades—as rational, self-interested actors whose behaviors and actions can be modeled. But then came the psychologists.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are often referred to as the fathers of behavioral economics, for demonstrating that the human brain relies on mental shortcuts and biases in decision-making, which often leads people to irrational ends. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, for "for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty." In 2011, he wrote a best-selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, about his research with Tversky.

The pair might seem an unlikely subject for writer Michael Lewis, who wrote the bestsellers Moneyball, The Big Short, and Flashboys. In his new book, The Undoing Project, Lewis tells the the lives of Kahneman and Tversky, the friendship that ungirded their ground-breaking research, and ultimately how that friendship unraveled due to physical distance (when the two took jobs at different institutions) and tension over recognition of the work they did together.

I talked to Lewis about why he wrote about two academics, the impact of their research, and the 2016 election through the lens of Kahneman and Tversky. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below.


Bourree Lam: Why you decided to pursue this book project about Kahneman and Tversky and their research? In the preface, you mention Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s review of Moneyball, which pointed out that what you described in that book was essentially behavioral economics. But The Undoing Project

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