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31 December 2016

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.

By Ed Smith

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.

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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.”

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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. 

This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016