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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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.