A young woman is brought into Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital following a traumatic head-on car crash on Highway 401. When her heart rate suddenly becomes erratic, the doctors come to the immediate diagnosis that it’s related to a pre-existing thyroid condition. Just as they’re about to treat the woman, another doctor, Don Redelmeier, stops the medical team, asks them to slow down and statistically look at other causes for her distress. If it wasn’t for his intervention, the woman’s collapsed lung would have been missed, and she most likely would have died.
This isn’t a story from a medical journal, but a scene from Michael Lewis’ new book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, about Israeli psychologists and behavioural economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who wrote groundbreaking studies about the inherent flaws in human decision-making, and why leading with your gut instead of numbers can result in critical errors in judgment.
Although Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his research, Lewis refers to Toronto’s Redelmeier, who worked with the psychologists on several studies, as the “unsung hero” of The Undoing Project. “He was central to my ability to write this thing. He kept me interested even when I wasn’t,” says Lewis. “He’s a national treasure.”
In fact, Lewis — whose non-fiction titles The Big Short, Moneyball, and The Blind Side have been adapted into Hollywood blockbusters — envisions the scene with Redelmeier as the opening to the future film adaptation of The Undoing Project. While researching the book, the best-selling Californian author made two trips to Toronto to spend time with the doctor; a brief stint compared to the eight years he spent “chasing Kahneman,” who was initially reluctant to become Lewis’s latest subject, worried his story would dominate that of his longtime partner. Tversky died in 1996, but Lewis spent a lot of time interviewing his family and colleagues, too. “It was a story that wasn’t all in one place. Everyone had bits and pieces,” Lewis says. “The pieces were scattered across the academic world, and the academic world is everywhere. It was labour intensive.”
Lewis calls The Undoing Project an unofficial “prequel” to Moneyball, his investigative account into the Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane, and his pursuit to build a winning baseball team using computer-generated analytics. This new book opens with sports, too — here, Lewis looks at errors in the way some ill-informed NBA teams and agents have recruited basketball players based on industry-accepted stereotypes, and how Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s findings about how our minds work are still relevant, 40 years later.
Over his journalistic career, Lewis has faced some tough subjects, and gained unparalleled entry into secrete (and occasionally corrupt) worlds such as the Wall Street trading floor. In part, he credits his New Orleans upbringing and how the city’s culture — “kids are thrust into adult-like social life so thoroughly” — for his ability to convince his subjects to open up. “They shouldn’t trust me entirely, though. My duty isn’t to them, but to the story. The way I think the trust develops — such as it exists — is that my interest is the interest of someone who is sympathetic,” he says. “I wouldn’t know how to go about writing a book about someone whom I actually secretly despised.”
Kahneman and Tversky’s studies also gave Lewis caution and a renewed awareness of making assumptions in his own writing. “Once you start telling the story, it is easy to just follow the story rather than the truth. We’re storytelling animals. We’re meant to tell stories even if they’re not true. You can see patterns where they don’t exist,” he says. “You do have to be careful, and argue against your story the entire time you’re working on it. Because your story is subtly arguing for itself all along.”
Sue Carter is the editor of Quill and Quire.