The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (Non Fiction)

Fascinating book about the birth of the field now known as Behavioral Economics. Part biography, part history, part research summary, this is the story both of the evolution of a friendship and collaboration as well as the melding of two previously disconnected fields: Economics and Psychology.

After their first meeting around 1968, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were rarely apart. The decades long tight collaboration that resulted produced a stunning number of key insights and seminal papers on the psychology of Judgement and Decision Making. The primary idea: there is systematic bias in the way people make decisions. Their work was responsible for the fall of the concept of the “rational man.”

They studied the cognitive basis for common human errors and elaborated on a set of heuristics (simple rules) and cognitive biases that subconsciously influenced the way people formed judgements or made decisions. Many of the resulting concepts — such as Anchoring, Framing, Hindsight, and the Halo Effect — have become household terms. Their “Prospect Theory,” created in 1979 and developed in 1992, was a “psychologically more accurate” description of how people made decisions, replacing the previously accepted Utility Theory which claimed that people made decisions by rationally calculating the utility (or value) of all potential outcomes. Applications of this work are widespread, ranging across medicine (evidence based medicine), sports, finance, and military uses.

Some of the heuristics:
• Representativeness heuristic: the decision making shortcut that determines probability based on how well the subject is representative of a stereotype.
• Availability heuristic: the mental shortcut that makes decisions based on examples that come immediately to mind.
• Anchoring and adjustment heuristic: the influence of a previously suggested reference point (the anchor) on a person’s assessment of probability.
• Simulation heuristic: the shortcut for determining an event based on how easy it is to imagine – or “the power of unrealized possibilities to contaminate people’s minds.”

Some of the biases
• Recency bias: Decision making based on the relative ease of remembering something that happened recently rather than long ago.
• Vividness bias: bias based on the ease with which an option can be recalled.
• Hindsight bias: the tendency of people to overestimate their ability to have predicted an outcome that they could not have possibly predicted.
• Present bias: The tendency of people to undervalue future with respect to present.

The structure of the book follows the story of the two men. Though the closest of friends and collaborators until the last few years of Tversky’s life, their personalities and background were quite different. While both Israeli, Amos came from an aggressive Zionist family, while Danny and his family escaped from Nazi Europe; Danny was an appeaser, Amos a bully; Amos loved theory while Danny liked practical application of psychology, “Amos was built to fight, Danny was built to survive.” The book includes captivating detail about their backgrounds and interactions, and the process by which the work took flight and captured the interest of researchers and practitioners around the world.

The journalistic style of the story makes the personal bits easy to remember, with the research results a little harder to grasp in its entirety. The narrative jumps around a bit and the down side of watching a theory evolve (and not necessarily in a linear order) is that it can be harder to comprehend the whole. I found reading the Wikipedia articles on Kahneman and Tversky helped supplement my understanding of the actual work.

Some great quotes:
Asked if their work was related to AI, Amos said: “We study natural stupidity instead of Artificial Intelligence.”

In response to evolutionary psychology proponents Amos said, “The mind was more like a coping mechanism than it was a perfectly designed tool.”

On “Creeping determinism,” Amos says: “He who sees the past as surprise-free is bound to have a future full of surprises.”

“Economics was meant to be the study of an aspect of human nature, but it had ceased to pay attention to human nature.”

“Theories for Amos were like mental pockets or briefcases, places to put the ideas you wanted to keep.”

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Personal Enjoyment: 5/5

Sweet, touching, and laugh-out-loud funny — and this is a book about Alzheimers. I didn’t think that sentence was even possible!

30-year old Ruth quits her job in San Francisco to move back home (Southern California) to help with father —a prominent history professor father (Howard) who is slowly losing his mind to Alzheimers. Written in a journal style (short, dated, segments over a year), the entries slowly morph into a set of notes addressed to her father describing their days together — a mirror of the delightful notes he had addressed to her about their time together during her childhood.
Ruth, her brother, and her mother all have their own issues to deal with — breakups, infidelity, betrayal — but the focus on helping Howard helps them in unexpected ways: Ruth finds herself more forgiving, and more understanding of the frailties of the people around her. The story abounds in kindnesses, both large and small. Instead of focusing on the loss, they are able to reestablish the love and connections that bind them into a family, with this new (or old) version of their father. A beautiful, and insightful, line: “Sharing things is how things gets started, and not sharing things is how they end.”
Well-written, fun to read, full of odd factoids and observations, and really touching insights into what relationships (of any kind) are really about.
Great for fans of Weike Wang.

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I love Doris Kearns Goodwin — she is an amazing writer. She gets to the heart of any subject and draws you in. In this book — quite appropriate for our times — she profiles four American presidents whose strong leadership skills were critical in helping the country make it through a “turbulent” time. This includes: Lincoln and the Civil War (Transformational Leadership); Theodore Roosevelt dealing with the 1902 coal miners strike (Crisis Management); FDR bringing the country out of the Depression (Turnaround Leadership); and Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights Legislation (Visionary Leadership).

She poses and tries to answer the big questions: “Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the times? How can a leader infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into people’s lives? What is the difference between power, title, and leadership? Is leadership possible without a purpose larger than personal ambition?” How could you not be hooked?

The book is divided into three parts: Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership; Adversity and Growth; The Leader and the Times: How they Led. She looks at each man through the lens of leadership qualities and how they are attained, developed, and used: intelligence, energy empathy, skill at dealing with people, verbal and written gifts.

Although she has written about each of these men at length in previous books (which I’ve read), I was spellbound by this new curation of the facts. Each president faced horribly difficult challenges for the country and in each case their approach brought about a (positive in my opinion) shift in thinking. Lincoln brought together a cabinet of his competitors, valuing competency and other opinions over agreement and consensus; Teddy Roosevelt with his “Square Deal” championed the concept of a president being the steward of the people, rather than the servant of Congress; FDR brought regulation to industries — particularly the banking industry — to help prevent the kind of wholesale loss that led to the Depression; and my favorite — Lyndon Johnson (not an orator by any means) making the speech championing civil rights saying “There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the issue of human rights.”

Definitely worth reading.