Former investment banker Michael Lewis became a chronicler of human weakness in a series of exquisite dissections of impenetrable financial scandals such as 80s greed, the credit crunch and the flash crash.
In his latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed The World (Allen Lane) he examines the idiosyncrasies of the species through the lives of two remarkable psychologists who between them practically invented behavioural economics.
This is the field that overturns the economists-eye of the view of the world – that people are rational units ruthlessly hunting out self-interest – and reflects a pragmatic truth that we are prone to mistakes, ruses, Barnum tricks and delusions. (He provides some fun examples.)
However, before he gets to the meat of his tale, he returns to another of his memorable books, Moneyball , which told how statistics and cold facts – and not gut instinct – were used to create the successful baseball team the Oakland As.
He uses basketball in his opening chapter, again exposing how pre-programmed thinking and benign prejudice often blind franchises to the potential of one young star and the shortcomings of another. Essentially, if you look like Michael Jordan, you’ve a better chance of getting picked, almost regardless of other factors.
This reprise is fascinating in its own right, although it is presented upfront, I suspect, as a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, as if Lewis understands that Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky , who met in war-torn Israel in the 1960s, don’t quite make star billing.
That is not to say that the two men, opposites in many ways, lived dull lives of nerdish study. They were, by dint of their birth, involved in Israel’s early struggle to survive, participants in wars whose results shape the Middle East to this day.
Their particular branch of study – how people make decisions – is fascinating, but Lewis’s main theme is one of intellectual collaboration which he insists on branding an asexual love story, how two become one. While this has a degree of merit, the hand is overplayed.
The two men were distinct and distinctly clever but, even at the end I kept mistaking Kahneman for Tversky and vice versa, even as they descended into Lennon and McCartney style break-ups and bickering.
But then again I’m only human and prone to mistakes – a thesis to which the men dedicated their working lives.
Regardless of this thematic flaw (and the terrible title), this is a Michael Lewis book which is as good a guarantee of quality as you’re likely to find on a book cover.