Three themes run through this book: human cognitive biases, Kahneman and Tversky's study of it and the friendship of these two professors. The last theme was the one advertised, and it's the part most worth the read.
This is not to say Kahneman and Tversky's research was not influential. Far from it -- the fallacies of availability, representation and heuristics are great insights, but you can read about the theories first hand from Kahneman's popular science book, Reading, Fast and Slow. Where Michael Lewis comes in, is to recount the fruitful yet tortured relationship between Kahneman and Tversky. Whereas Kahneman may be able to do a better job at introducing his theories, only Michael Lewis can open Kahneman up for the intimate and inexplicable feelings he has for Tversky.
Kahneman was an outstanding psychologist from the start of his career. Right out of college, the Israeli army gave him the task of evaluating combat soldiers, with the goal of spotting who is going to become a good commander within the first week of the training. The traditional way to do it was for the cadres to go through a serious of simulations, and the examiner watches how the person reacts under different circumstances. But because of the halo effect of the charismatic leaders, the ones who impress the examiners are not necessarily good commanders. What Kahneman suggested was for each cadre to complete a dozen of behavior questions. Simple and easy. This proves to be more accurate than any tests. In fact, the Israeli army is to this day still using the same questions that Kahneman prescribed with minimal modification.
But Tversky is the real genius of the two. An anecdote of Tversky in his early years tells it all. In a party to celebrate a physicist's receiving the second-highest prize after the Nobel price, the prizewinner ended up in the corner with Amos, who had recently taken an interest in black holes. The next day the prizewinner asked who this physicist was. The host told the prizewinner that the person he was talking to was not a physicist but a psychologist, to which the prizewinner said, "It's not possible; he was the smartest of all the physicists." Other people talked about Tversky that the first reaction he has to any problem was a top 10 percent thought; or, the sooner you figure out that Tversky is smarter than you are, the smarter you are.
Kahneman and Tversky produced most of their collaborated work when they at Hebrew University. They would spend hours in their office talking about ideas. They finish each other's sentences, laugh at each other's jokes. They were such good friends that strained Kahneman's marriage. No fence was drawn around one's ideas because any idea belongs to both.
Like many couples, the relationship was defeated by distance. After his wife made it clear that she will not live in Israel, Kahneman decided to move out of Israel. Tversky decided to follow him to continue their collaboration. When both these people are up on the market of professorship, Tversky turns out to be the one that every university wants to snatch. Stanford handed him an offer within record time of less than one day; Harvard gave him an offer too. Michigan pulled four offers, one for each of Tversky, Kahneman and their wives. Kahneman, on the other hand, ended up in the University of British Columbia.
The two agreed to take turns to fly to each other every other week, but the relationship is no longer the same. They communicated with each by letters more, which gives rise to the question of who initiated an idea. Meanwhile, Tversky received more and more accolade for the papers that he wrote with Kahneman, and Kahneman was less and less mentioned. Lewis claims that Tversky hated to receive the McArthur award, precisely because he doesn't think that the award should go to him alone. But he never conveyed this feeling to Kahneman. Since they left Israel, they stopped researching new topics together. The papers that they did publish together were to finish up projects that they started back in Israel.
The friendship ended when Tversky enlisted Kahneman to fight again a nasty critic of their theories. Kahneman is the nice one and Tversky always belligerent. One day, some time after they stopped their collaboration, Kahneman told Tversky that he no long thinks that friendship is possible.
The book resembles not only a romance novel, where the relationship is fraught with pushes and pulls, it also resembles a suspense novel. Did they mend their fences? Were the two greatest psychologists came back to continue their work together? The answer to the latter question is an unambiguous no, and the answer to the former is a yes but with a twist.
Tversky was diagnosed cancer in 1996. Kahneman was the second person that he called. He wanted to Kahneman to spread the news with the instruction that nobody bother Tversky. The two talked to each other nearly everyday during the last 6 months of Tversky's life. Tversky told Kahnemen that no one had caused him more pain in his life; and Kahneman had to bite his tongue to stop himself from echoing the sentiment. During Tversky's funeral, Kahneman was the one to deliver the main eulogy. This, was the men's reconciliation.