The Corrosiveness of Genius: A Review of Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project
By Alexander Danvers
The moral of Michael Lewis’s new book The Undoing Project should be that genius isn’t something you are—it’s something other people say you are. The story follows the growth and dissolution of the friendship of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and the ground-breaking research they did on common errors in decision making. In Lewis’s telling Kahneman was introverted, full of self-doubt, and more interested in solving practical problems than developing theory. Tversky was the hot-shot mathematical psychologist who lit up every room, won every argument, and made everyone who talked to him believe that they had met a true genius. Their collaborative research at Hebrew University was the most important work either of them did, yet by the end of Tversky’s life the consensus was that he was the front man and Kahneman was the backup.
This should be the moral of the story, but the message just misses. Lewis concludes his book with discussions of how Kahneman felt living in Tversky’s shadow for work that they really did together, which might lead the reader to consider fame a kind of shell game where credit must be inside one—and only one—of a group of collaborators. Why couldn’t people consider that the insight was in the interaction? Why did it have to be a special property of one person? Is there some broader point here about the academic star system, in which certain researchers are labelled “rock stars” and get credited with not just their own, but all related insights? Yet instead of focusing on how problematic fame can be, The Undoing Project ends up feeling more like an attempt to correct the record. It wasn’t just Tversky who was a genius. Kahneman is a genius, too.
The first half of the book is particularly susceptible to “genius talk.” Much of what we learn about both Kahneman and Tversky’s lives prior to their collaboration we learn from laudatory quotes. These two geniuses were constantly impressing everyone around them, spewing insights and achievements left and right. Could you even imagine what might happen if they worked together to form a double genius? Lewis seems not to know how to fully explain who these people were, only how to explain what others saw in them.
Yet what is missing in this book—but is present in many of his other works, like The Blind Side and The Big Short—is the broader context. Although the film The Blind Side focused on one athlete’s story, the book focused on the evolution of a particular position—left tackle—and its importance in football. The Big Short focused less on what a stroke of brilliance it was for some investors to have seen the 2008 financial crash coming, but on how skepticism and attention to detail led naturally to that forecast.
The intellectual story behind The Undoing Project is about how economists let themselves believe that models built around the concept of people as basically smart, rational actors were good approximations of reality—but how the idea that everyone is a smart, rational actor should sound crazy to anyone who takes a step back and thinks about the people they know. This realization took one psychologist who understood what all the complicated math of economics was implying about how people think (Tversky)—and one psychologist who, when he had someone explain it to him, was willing to call B.S. (Kahneman). Important insights don’t need to be had by “geniuses”—they can be had by reasonably smart people thinking in the right direction. As Thomas Huxley famously said when he understood Darwin’s theory of natural selection, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.”
To a reader (like myself) excited by the possibility of Lewis taking a deep dive into the story of this important insight, The Undoing Project is a bit disappointing. Lewis is a tremendous writer, so the book is never dull, and it does raise some useful questions about friendship and fame. Yet I wanted to hear more about the other players in the story—Thaler, Loewenstein, Sunstein, Redelmeir, Gigerenzer—and how they fit not just in the person lives of these researchers, but in the development of the ideas that have become behavioral economics. I wanted to know not just what happened—what the new ideas were, where and when Kahenman and Tversky hatched them—but why they happened. Why did these ideas catch on so quickly? Why didn’t other people see it? If they did, why did Tversky’s name—and not some other—become synonymous with them?
I would recommend The Undoing Project to fans of Lewis’ writing and to curious outsiders who have not heard of behavioral economics or decision-making biases. Yet to a psychologist reading, looking for deeper understanding of how these two men developed ideas that changed our field, I would suggest retaining a sense of skepticism and attention to detail. Remember that genius is something bestowed, not something innate.