Books

Mind
games
An American author tells the tale of the storied
friendship of Israel’s two most famous psychologists
By Tibor Krausz
IN HIS 2012 bestseller “Thinking, Fast and much to their science as to each other. Kahneman immigrates to Israel, where he
Slow,” a tour de force of popular science, Their storied friendship and their cele- studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusa-
world-renowned Israeli psychologist Daniel brated collaborative scholarship deserve lem, which is partly and temporarily housed
Kahneman laid bare our cognitive foibles. fleshing out, and the American writer Mi- inside a monastery owing to the Jordanian
Our minds, he explained, frequently play chael Lewis does just that in “The Undoing occupation of the city’s eastern half. He cuts
weird tricks on us, but we believe ourselves Project.” his teeth under charismatic teachers like
to be firmly in control. Lewis is the author of the 2003 bestseller the temperamental intellectual Yeshayahu
The book, too, played a trick of sorts by “Moneyball,” in which he chronicled a mid- Leibowitz.
having had a dead man partly in control dling US baseball team’s quest to become There’s not one more word about basket-
of its creation. Kahneman, 82, dedicat- more competitive by relying not on tradi- ball, or any other sport, for the rest of the
ed his magnum opus to his late friend and tional expert opinions but on cold-headed book. Presumably, Lewis, or his publisher,
long-time academic collaborator, Amos statistical analysis. “The Undoing Project,” felt that his American readers wouldn’t care
Tversky, with whom he claimed to have the author notes, was inspired by a psychol- much about two Israeli psychologists un-
possessed “a shared mind that was superior ogist’s critique of “Moneyball,” which first less they could be seen to have something
to our individual minds.” Absent his friend, brought the Israel duo’s insights into hu- to contribute to a better understanding of an
Kahneman could never have done most of man judgments and decision-making to his all-American pursuit like basketball.
his groundbreaking research for “Thinking, attention. Be that as it may, in the third chapter,
Fast and Slow.” we leave Kahneman and meet a young
Tversky, who coauthored numerous in- THE RESULT is an informative, occasion- Tversky, a whip-smart, charismatic maver-
fluential academic papers and scientific ally arresting but vexingly discursive book, ick from Haifa who rises to command units
articles with Kahneman over almost two which can give you severe whiplash as it of paratroopers and infantrymen, fights in
decades before his death in 1996, duly frequently bounds from topic to topic with the wars of 1956 and 1967, and receives an
looms large in the book. There he is, page nary a dollop of narrative or thematic glue. award for bravery from Moshe Dayan. Like
after page, usually in the recurring phrase The first chapter kicks off with a lengthy Kahneman, Tversky, too, is something of a
“Amos and I,” thinking, brainstorming, exposition on the vagaries of recruiting new prodigy and is naturally drawn to the field
opining, theorizing and analyzing with talents for NBA teams. Neither Kahneman of psychology, which is still a nascent disci-
Kahneman. In the dog-eat-dog world of nor Tversky makes even a cameo. pline in Israeli academia.
academe, riven by jealousies and domi- Then, in the second chapter, we sudden- Separately, Kahneman and Tversky are
nated by self-serving ambitions, the two ly encounter Kahneman doing his best, as both creative and original thinkers; togeth-
Israeli scientists were a remarkable pair: a precocious Jewish teenager, to elude cap- er, they will become a formidable team.
kindred spirits and fine minds devoted as ture in Nazi-occupied France. After the war, Clearly enamored of his subjects, whom he

40 THE JERUSALEM REPORT APRIL 3, 2017
LARRY DOWNING / REUTERS

Former US president Barack Obama awards Daniel Kahneman the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 at the White House

THE JERUSALEM REPORT APRIL 3, 2017 41
Books

familiarly calls Danny and Amos through- Daniel Kahneman (right)
out, Lewis often winds up tottering precari- and Amos Tversky
ously on the verge of hagiography. At times became an unusual
he topples headlong into it. Tversky, he re- duo in the dog-eat-
ports breathlessly, was “the last to go to bed, dog world of academe,
the life of every party, the light to which all fusing their talents
butterflies flew, and the freest, happiest, to tackle daunting

BARBARA TVERSKY
and most interesting person anyone knew.” problems in psychology
Good to know.
Just by wearing a suit and tie to work at
Hebrew University, where he becomes an
assistant professor, Tversky causes a sensa-
tion in the Spartan, no-nonsense and causti- and which holds that our perceptions of the the two’s formative insights in quantifiable
cally irreverent social milieu of the 1960s. world are mediated by our pattern-seeking foundations.
Good to know that, too. But we’re a third tendencies, which we often employ to im-
way into the book, and Amos and Danny pose meanings arbitrarily, even when there AS ONE of their first tasks, the dynamic
have yet to meet or so much as be men- are none. As one of Israel’s first army psy- duo proved that people, experts included,
tioned in the same breath. chologists, Kahneman learned at firsthand are ready to draw sweeping, and frequently
Meet they finally do, in 1969 and Chap- that what may seem like sound judgments of wrong, conclusions from a few random or
ter 5. In short order, Tversky becomes yin people’s potentials based on their apparent select facts or observations. This may not
to Kahneman’s yang, the ebullient, gung- temperaments and abilities can be fraught seem like a revolutionary insight but it went
ho extrovert complementing the reserved, with errors and misconceptions. Our first against the prevailing idea at the time that
brooding introvert, as the two set about impressions and initial expectations of oth- credited people with being intuitive, natu-
tackling a series of daunting problems in ers can badly skew our judgments of them. ral-born statisticians, who could somehow
psychology. “Both wanted to search for To reduce such mistakes, he devised new divine hard truths from a few bits of data. In-
simple, powerful truths,” Lewis writes. personality assessment techniques for the nate probabilistic reasoning, the two Israeli
IDF, which are still in use. experts showed, is not one of our strengths
IN THOSE days, most of psychology Kahneman, whom Lewis aptly dubs “a as a species. That’s why computerized algo-
wasn’t (as it still largely isn’t) a proper sci- spectacularly original connoisseur of human rithms, not being prone to the human mind’s
ence with empirically sound, quantifiable error,” set out to find a method for ameliorat- frequent erroneous judgments, can do the
properties underlying the various grand ing the impact of flawed personal opinions job of analyzing, diagnosing and predicting
hypotheses about the animating forces of on decisions – be it in the military, politics, far better than flesh-and-blood experts.
human behavior. Instead, it was like a form business or medicine. The key, he thought, Through a series of similar experiments,
of art, a field of creative intuition where the was to eliminate our innate biases by rein- Kahneman and Tversky documented that we
ideas of prominent psychologists became ing in our “gut feelings.” Independently, understand the world by the help of instinc-
received wisdom among their followers. Tversky arrived at similar conclusions about tive habits of mind that serve us well in some
Yet both Kahneman and Tversky, each a the flaws in human decision-making. People, situations but let us badly down in others.
polymath of sorts in his own way, were fas- he realized, choose between two or more op- As a result, we often err in our judgments
cinated by it – not so much by the academic tions based not only on the various features but rarely realize it. We use mental short-
discipline itself as the quest that it purported of each but also on which of those features cuts, or “heuristics” in academic parlance, to
to embody: the search for key insights into they regard as more relevant whenever they evaluate probabilities and make judgments
why we think and behave the way we do. happen to make their choice. In other words, accordingly, but we aren’t very good at it.
Kahneman was influenced by experimen- context can greatly influence the outcome of We’re slaves to a whole host of built-in cog-
tal Gestalt psychology, a field originated their choice. Tversky was also expert at math nitive biases – confirmation bias, hindsight
and dominated by German Jews in the 1920s and statistics, which would soon help anchor bias, illusory correlation bias.

42 THE JERUSALEM REPORT APRIL 3, 2017
They carried on for years and years, tack- international conference held at a kibbutz
ling problems, slaying sacred cows of utili- near Jerusalem in 1975. “And so it was
ty theory and decision analysis, and prying on a farm that a theory that would become
ever further into the whims of human folly. among the most influential in the history of
All the while they remained fast friends. economics made its public debut,” Lewis
“They’d become a single mind, creating observes. It would help Kahneman win the
ideas about why people did what they did,” Nobel Prize in economics in 2002. Tversky
Lewis writes, echoing Kahneman’s own as- was equally deserving of the honor, but by
sessment of their relationship. then he had died of cancer, at age 59.
Other findings of theirs that Lewis re-
SOME OF the two Israelis’ findings about lays appear less momentous. Take this one:
human psychology proved seminal, such as Kahneman and Tversky prove, through a
their insight that people approach risks dif- series of experiments, that people are es-
ferently when they’re faced with the pros- sentially risk averse. Given a choice, say,
pect of a certain gain or a certain loss. They between the certainty of receiving $400 and
act more circumspectly in the former case a 50 percent chance of receiving $1,000,
but are more willing to gamble in the latter most people, loath to gamble as they are,
so as to avoid incurring a loss. The reason: will forfeit the prospect of the larger sum
“our greater sensitivity to negative rather and settle for $400. This will come as a sur-
than positive changes,” as they put it. “For prise only to someone unfamiliar with the
most people,” they elucidated, “the happi- age-old proverb “a bird in the hand is worth
ness involved in receiving a desirable object two in the bush,” which has long testified to
is smaller than the unhappiness involved in just such pecuniary prudence.
losing the same object.” Human affairs are animated by what the
Likewise, we evaluate gains and losses American psychologist Paul Meehl called
according to our “reference point,” our sub- “the ubiquity and recalcitrance of irratio-
jective and transient baseline for what we nality,” but you need not be a trained psy-
see as gains and losses. If, for example, we chologist to see that. Lewis has done us a
expect a year-end bonus of $100,000 but favor by documenting the long and intel-
receive only $50,000, we will likely feel lectually fruitful friendship of Kahneman
cheated, even though we still have made a and Tversky while simultaneously helping
gain. If, on the other hand, we receive the popularize their insights. Ultimately, how-
full $100,000 but learn that everyone else at ever, “The Undoing Project” is an uneven
work has received $150,000, we will like- book, in turns riveting and prosaic, astute
ly feel cheated again because our reference and humdrum.
point will suddenly have shifted to what Regretfully, it also leaves some issues it
everyone else has got. This quirk of hu- raises unexplored. “[T]he question of wheth-
man nature means we can easily be coaxed er God exists left me cold,” Kahneman, the
into taking or avoiding risks, depending on grandson of Lithuanian rabbis, explains at
whether we’re made to believe, through a one point apropos his burgeoning atheism
simple reframing of context, that we’re fac- in his youth, “But the question of why peo- The Undoing Project: A Friendship
ing a net gain or a net loss. ple believe God exists I found really fas- That Changed Our Minds
The Israeli pair presented their new “pros- cinating.” We never learn what answers to Michael Lewis
pect theory,” a form of value theory, to a that question he’s found. Too bad, because W. W. Norton
select group of leading experts during an it’d be worth finding out.  368 pages; $28.95

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