Michael Lewis’ latest book, “The Undoing Project,” weaves together the biographies of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, two Israeli psychologists whose work in the 1970s–1990s launched a new way of combining behavioral academics with practical applications. Their specialty was exploring the ways the human mind makes systematic errors when forced to judge uncertain situations.
At first, you may not think that sounds like gripping entertainment. But in typical Michael Lewis fashion, these pair of academics become a fascinating read.
I and my Hill Investment Group colleagues had the privilege of meeting Lewis and hearing him speak shortly after he published his 2003 book, “Moneyball.” In it, he showed how Major League Baseball teams were making poor decisions on valuing players based on human judgment. Defying convention, Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane evaluated players using data rather than “expert” judgments to successfully compete against teams boasting much higher payrolls.
When Lewis wrote “Moneyball,” he wasn’t aware how powerful his book would become. He was simply intrigued by a real-life illustration of objective evidence beating the pants off of conventional so-called wisdom.
In some respects, “The Undoing Project,” is a prequel to “Moneyball.” Lewis admits, he didn’t realize it at the time how much of what he explored in “Moneyball” came directly from professors Tversky and Kahneman and their earlier work. Once he connected the dots, he decided to write a book about them too. Their story is about how they used their understanding of systematic errors in people’s judgment to improve that judgment, and thus improve their decision-making.
I believe one of their most important findings is this: Knowing you or others have biases (such as relying on overly small samples, anchoring on past assumptions, and mistaking hindsight as being predictive) isn’t sufficient to overcome them. Even when we know we’re being influenced, we often let it happen anyway!
Here’s one example from Lewis’ book: In 2016, basketball player Jeremy Lin signed a $38 million contract with the Brooklyn Nets – clearly a coveted hire. But back in 2010, no NBA team would draft him. “He lit up our models,” one team manager said … but as a Chinese-American Harvard grad, Lin didn’t fit the stereotype. Even though they had the evidence (the models) in hand, they were unable to overcome their biases and recruit him when he could have been had for far less money.
Back to professors Kahneman and Tversky. In 2002, Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for the work that continues to shape our lives today. Amos Tversky likely would have received the award as well but, sadly, he passed away in 1996, and Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously. In any case, their work has contributed to untold advances in medical diagnosis, military decisions, professional sports and – last but hardly least – financial economics.
Across all of these disciplines and more, the takeaway is that human bias is ever-present, which is why we must remain ever on guard against it. Hint: One of the best ways I know to combat your own biases is to recruit someone who is aware of how prevalent they are, to let you know when it’s happening to you.