In the fall of 1969, behind the closed door of an otherwise empty seminar room at Hebrew University, two psychologists began a collaboration that would upend the understanding of human behavior. Those first conversations were filled with uproarious laughter and occasional shouting, in a jumble of Hebrew and English, which could sometimes be heard from the hallway.
When it came time for the two professors to write up their papers, they would sit next to each other at a single typewriter. “We were sharing a mind,” one would say later. They flipped a coin to decide whose name would appear first on their initial paper and alternated thereafter. The two names were Amos Tversky — the winner of that coin flip — and Daniel Kahneman.
Their work revealed previously undiscovered patterns of human irrationality: the ways that our minds consistently fool us and the steps we can take, at least some of the time, to avoid being fooled. Kahneman and Tversky used the word “heuristics” to describe the rules of thumb that often lead people astray. One such rule is the “halo effect,” in which thinking about one positive attribute of a person or thing causes observers to perceive other strengths that aren’t really there. Another is “representativeness,” which leads people to see cause and effect — to see a “narrative” — where they should instead accept uncertainty or randomness.
The research of Kahneman and Tversky has become some of the most influential social science of the past century. It has helped to reorder economics by exposing the folly of economists’ belief in an unconsciously rational human mind. The work has also led to advances in medical diagnosis and patient behavior. It has affected eating habits, cellphone use by drivers, retirement savings and many other areas.
The work is also full of practical little ideas. “No one ever made a decision because of a number,” Kahneman has said. “They need a story.” Or Tversky’s theory of socializing: Because stinginess and generosity are both contagious, and because behaving generously makes you happier, surround yourself with generous people.
One of the clearest places to see their work’s impact, although surely not the most important, is professional sports. Team executives have realized that some of their long-held assumptions about what makes a great athlete or a winning strategy turn out to be wrong. And they have adjusted. The adjustments have not always worked, and many of the old beliefs — say, the importance of fielding skill among catchers in baseball — contain wisdom. Yet the reformist movement has had many more wins than losses. One reformer is Theo Epstein, the executive who has overseen the demise of mythical curses on both the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.
The changes in sports are known as the Moneyball revolution, after the title of a 2003 book by Michael Lewis, about the low-budget success of the Oakland Athletics. One review of “Moneyball” particularly caught Lewis’s eye, because it offered a criticism that had not occurred to him. Writing in The New Republic, two academics — Richard Thaler, an economist who had helped overthrow his field’s hyperrationality, and Cass Sunstein, a law professor — argued that Lewis had missed a larger story: The success of the A’s could trace its intellectual roots not only through the world of baseball’s analytical geeks but also back to the work of Kahneman and Tversky…
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