Ask people to name those who have helped us understand the human mind, or helped us to understand why we act in the way we do, and it likely that only a handful of names will be found in the replies. Freud and Jung will be the most common answers by far. This is rather sad as, important as their insights were, the work of these luminaries is now rather aged, much of the work is outdated, or has been surpassed by better explanations, or has been shown to be simply mistaken. Much of it was understandable when viewed though the lens of the Viennese culture at the time, but under the scrutiny of a modern lens it is found seriously lacking. However, they were giants of their day and were lofty shoulders on which others have stood and seen further.
These more recent giants are much less well known. Though their work is far reaching and has much better explanatory power their names remain less likely to be known. Despite their work altering the practice of medicine, causing economists to rethink their premises, changing how sportsmen play and are chosen, and even altering how the military and legal systems operate, they are still far from being household names. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are the names of two of the most important psychologists of the last century and “The Undoing Project” is the story of their friendship and their work.
This book is essentially a dual biography it follows their lives and the lives of some who were affected by their work. As they were Israeli academic psychologists their lives were also bound up in the history of the birth of Israel and the wars that accompanied this. As a consequence the book is lively and exciting as we see the development of their friendship, the discovery of their psychological insights, the application of these insights in medicine and industry and the unfolding of the situation in the Middle East. There are no slow sections in this book, it is densely packed but very readable.
Despite being readable and often like a thriller, ‘what will happen next”, it does not shy away from discussing the psychological research in reasonable detail. It explains their research on heuristics in judgement, explains why our view of ourselves as simply rational beings is difficult to hold, and shows some of the surprising factors that can influence our decision making. It could act as a introduction or summary of their theories but for a fuller review Daniel Kahneman’s own book “Thinking, fast and slow” is recommended.
Hopefully this book will bring more the modern psychological work into the public eye and allow us to view ourselves with more useful scientific insights. Knowing the limitations of our rationality, the factors which influence our decision making, and the common sources of our errors might make us less likely to fall into to error and perhaps be less easy prey to those who know these factors and use them to manipulate our choices.
PS : the only caveat I might add is that there is a fair bit explained through the medium of American sports. This is awkward for a European reader. If female sexuality was a “dark continent” to Freud , then my ‘dark continent’ is the mystery that is baseball and basketball.