Book Report: The Undoing Project

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds is written by Michael Lewis, the same author of other books such as Moneyball. This book is a sort of spiritual successor to Moneyball, focusing on the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their work in the area of human decision making.

Although a significant part of the book focuses on the duo behind the papers, there’s quite a bit of content around the irrational behaviors that are captured in the papers published, as well as their impacts in multiple fields well outside of psychology.

The Impact of Phrasing

Many of Kahneman and Tversky’s papers are built of of data from asking their undergraduate students questions via surveys. This has illuminated the ways in which the human mind does not operate rationally (such as guessing a sequence of numbers 1 * 2 * …. * 10 differently based on whether the series starts with the low number of the higher number). The duo often played around with wording, and found that some gentle hinting of the question itself can yield results where the answers are more rational.

This implies that phrasing has a significant impact on the results that are yielded. Unfortunately that means many surveys can be designed in such a way that the results are skewed in some particular favor.

Human Fallibility Affects All Fields

A major theme in the research is around the human mind’s inability to evaluate situations rationally. One really interesting aspect was around the probability of various events: estimates were easily influenced by the recency of an event, or it’s recollection in the estimator’s mind.

The book dove a little bit on the idea of evidence-based medicine, and how in the past it was in many areas a handed-down, subjective practice. The ones who broke through this subjective practice was those that were willing to challenge the approach of the established groups in a particular field.

My interpretation is to have others double-check work and major decisions: personal biases can easily creep in. I find this is especially difficult in the field of software development, where many choices are stylistic approaches, and the pros and cons are not apparent. Many of the factors of good software development is behavioral, from making fewer coding errors to ensuring best practices are kept.

Personal Thoughts

I really enjoy Michael Lewis’s writing because of it’s ability to highlight specific real-life situations that further cement the specific idea. In Moneyball, Lewis did a great job of really showing how Billy Beane is able to apply the statistical approach to baseball in his recruiting and play. In The Undoing Project, Lewis explains the logical fallacies using the real experiments that Kahnaman and Tversky ran on their students. Humans love stories, and It’s a great way to leave an imprint and recall these lessons well after reading the book.

Author: toumorokoshi

Love to code, love emacs!

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