Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project (Post-Read)

Whether or not any of it is understandable, some of it is a must read. The first half gives extensive background on the major characters and the background of experimental psychology from the 1950s to 1970, and a little on general psychological notions like the law of small numbers. At about the half-way point, it shifts to looking at how the human mind works as the major characters look at how the human mind works and, more often does not, work. For example, it might blow you away to learn that, by studying how doctors themselves diagnosed stomach tumors as malignant or not, the psychologists developed a simple algorithm that diagnosed more accurately than the doctors themselves. Indeed, each doctor had been given numerous possible tumors to diagnose, which included unknown to the doctors some of the same tumors twice, and the doctors often diagnosed it as malignant on one try and benign on another, which the algorithm did not do. The book then proceeds as the major characters work their way through external influences showing how they shape perception and conduct, and explore the difference between prediction and judgment (“a prediction is a judgment that involves uncertainty”). They examine how fallible predictions in sharp contrast to how definite explanations are once the outcome is known (a lecture they have to historians had the historians leaving the room in tears). They tackle why people will guess that 8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1 will produce a larger number than 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8, or why people wrongly think that weather affects their discomfort from arthritis, or how the timing of the extraction of a colonoscopy tube in the 1980s affects the likelihood of a patient returning for a second colonoscopy. If you are concerned that this might doubt your wrong perceptions, worry not: If you don’t understand and recognize the fallacy of the hot hand in basketball, you will remain as stupid after reading the book as you were before reading it. Should you decide to give up reading the book at any point, go to Chapter 9 and read it. It gives some great example of why decision-making is so flawed and self-deceptive. And Chapter 10 is even better and clearer (e.g., why do people continue holding a stock  that has dropped in value, when even at that reduced price they would never buy it). After Chapter 10, the book goes off into stuff about the two guys and their careers and stuff that’s quite uninteresting, and such psyhology stuff that’s covered is incomprehensible and probably not very interesting. In sum, you can probably read Chapters 7-10 and just leave it at that. It could be that Michael Lewis did not explain stuff as well as he could have, or our reviewer wasn’t smart enough to understand what Lewis was saying. Finally, although not on point to anything, my favorite line from the book: “Unless you are kicking yourself once a month for throwing something away, you are not throwing enough away.”

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