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How two psychologists found the perfect balance between confidence and doubt

The central irrationality inside sport is the dread of looking conspicuously wrong, which is even more powerful than wanting to be proved right.

In 2011, I interviewed Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-American psychologist. The Nobel laureate had just published the bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow, and his reputation was at an all-time high.

A few sentences from that conversation made an especially deep impression on me. When Kahneman spoke about Amos Tversky, his intellectual soulmate who had died in 1996, his voice changed. It signalled loss and reverence, at the same time hinting that the relationship was intimately bound up with his own identity. Kahneman had lost part of himself, too, perhaps the greater part.

His tone conveyed such complexity that you suspected a book could be written on the friendship. Now it has been, by Michael Lewis, and the splendid result, The Undoing Project (Allen Lane), is worthy of the unique relationship it describes. The idea that people often behave – and think – irrationally is now mainstream. This book describes how Kahneman and Tversky made it so.

Though both academic psychologists who served in the Israeli army, Tversky and Kahneman had contrasting temperaments. Tversky was a force of nature – a war hero, intellectually dazzling, the cleverest person in the room. Kahneman was sceptical, gentler, needing frequent reassurance. To everyone’s amazement, they developed an intellectual love affair. Theirs was a private but playful conversation without borders or maps; the two quickly gave up trying to remember who had initiated which idea.

The intellectual romance began when something very unusual happened: Tversky found his thinking challenged in a seminar room. That formative debate with Kahneman left Tversky feeling an emotion he was unused to – doubt.

Their individual qualities, when united, became more than the sum of their parts. In their partnership, they found a balance (between boldness and scepticism) that was elusive for them as individuals. It felt like sharing a joint mind. Tversky brought combative sparkle and formal brilliance, tempered and directed by Kahneman’s uncertainty and self-critical sensibility. “I’m not a genius,” Kahneman said. “Neither is Tversky. Together, we are exceptional.”

The book begins by examining Tversky-Kahneman logic at work in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Why are some future stars missed by recruiters, yet other types consistently overvalued? Scouts get distracted by appearances and are put off the scent: once they’ve appraised the wrapper, they can’t focus on the content.

Someone who resembles the ideal of an NBA player – a fine athlete who slots neatly in to one of basketball’s five positions – is more likely to get picked up than a superior performer who doesn’t seem familiar in type. In the language of Kahneman and Tversky, this is the “representativeness heuristic”. People don’t choose between things, they choose between stories about things – and it’s easier to construct a theory about a future prospect when you can picture a similar version already playing.

The central irrationality inside sport is the dread of looking conspicuously wrong, which is even more powerful than wanting to be proved right (that is to say, winning). The culture persists that as long as it’s the kind of mistake everyone else makes, surely the top brass won’t get slaughtered.

A connected problem is classification. When I was working as team consultant for Bangalore in the Indian Premier League this year, I watched the young Indian cricketer K L Rahul in the nets. Someone had mentioned that he was a traditional, technically accomplished batsman. Elegant and classical, he fitted the stereotype of someone who batted with old-fashioned skill rather than “modern” power. Not an intrinsic T20 player? The logic was obvious. Only later, when I watched Rahul smash sixes in matches while outscoring celebrated T20 hitters, did I remember that I had seen him hit several huge sixes in that first practice. If the classification “Test match batsman” had not been in my mind, I would have formed a faster, more accurate picture of his qualities.

Remembering being wrong, however, is a lot more useful than not remembering being wrong. My favourite story from the book relates to the NBA head coach who asks his scouts for an example of a star they missed: “If they don’t give me a good one, I’m like, ‘F*** ’em.’” Out with overconfidence.

By serving in the Israeli army during a time of war, Kahneman and Tversky moved between the real world and the sphere of ideas. They didn’t get lost in theory. But perhaps their fame relies on people who did. For although Lewis explains how their ideas influenced the military, medicine and sports (the book’s subtitle is A Friendship That Changed the World) it could be argued that their main influence was on academia, especially economics, which had put too high a value on rationality. So what is cast as a bold departure – towards understanding irrationality – can also be interpreted as a convergence, as academia was reunited with reality. That is also a great achievement, but not quite the same thing.

My reading of this book, linked to a tension in my own life, centres on the complex nature of confidence. How confident should you want to be? Temperamentally confident, I have become increasingly intellectually sceptical. So I sometimes feel that the exterior and the interior of my personality were built by different architects, in opposing styles. Reflecting on my time as a cricket captain, I wish I’d done the job at a younger age, earlier in my twenties, when I was much more inclined to think I was right.

The partnership of Tversky and Kahneman is a case study in true collaboration, an aggregation of pluses. The rest of us, though bounded by the limitations of a single, faltering life, can grope towards what they achieved so admirably in unison – a balance between confidence and doubt. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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