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Michael Lewis on the Psychological Quirks Donald Trump Exploited to Become President

Photo: Ray Tamarra/GC Images

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, can safely be called a must-read for behavioral psychology nerds. It tells the story of how the Israeli psychologists Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky embarked upon one of the most fruitful, revolutionary collaborations in 20th-century psychology, launching the field of behavioral economics. By asking some very simple — but at that point, as-yet-unasked — questions about how humans make judgments and decisions, the pair was able to rewrite the rules of how psychologists, economists, and others predict human behavior. Anywhere human judgment is important, so too are the insights of behavioral economics. Kahnemanian and Tverskyian findings have influenced everything from the ways doctors evaluate x-rays to how airline pilots communicate with one another to how governments administer social services.

In an interview with Science of Us, Lewis expanded on some of the themes in the book. Here are three interesting points that came up, ranging from critics’ (mostly) failed attempts to knock back at Kahneman and Tversky’s findings, to the role Israel played in the duo’s story, to what their research can tell us about our foreboding current political moment.

Evolutionary-psychology critiques of Kahneman and Tversky were silly.

After Kahneman and Tversky burst onto the scene, explained Lewis, “the greatest hostility came from jealous psychologists and philosophers who felt like these guys had wandered onto their turf. It wasn’t that interesting to me the hostility, because there wasn’t much coherence to it.” Much of the duo’s work was so convincing that it was simply hard to refute in a meaningful way, except at the margins.

One group that did try especially hard to, said Lewis, was evolutionary psychologists. Some of them insisted that of course the human mind had evolved to make choices in a rational, accurate way — otherwise how would we have survived to where we are today? To Lewis, that missed the point of Kahneman and Tversky’s argument. “The idea that we would have been evolved to make highly advanced probabilistic calculations in a jungle environment, it just seems unlikely,” he said Lewis. “The environment’s changed, and maybe we’re evolving now and we’re all going to be like Nate Silver in a billion years. He may be the human of the future.” In other words, all humans needed back when we were in the “wild” was to have brains that could do good-enough job making various sorts of judgments and decisions. “Think of your mind like a Swiss Army knife,” explained Lewis. It’s pretty good at a bunch of stuff, and that’s usually enough to get by — but you wouldn’t want to use it to saw into a giant log (that is, to evaluate a complicated set of conditional probabilities).

Kahneman and Tversky didn’t take these critiques all that seriously, anyway, explained Lewis. “They didn’t think the critics landed any serious blows.”

Kahneman and Tversky were able to rewrite the rules of psychology and economics in part because of the peculiar nature of Israel in its early years, and because of Kahneman’s tragic childhood.

The early parts of The Undoing project focus largely on Kahneman’s childhood, part of which was spent trying to evade Nazi roundups with his family in France, largely because his father had wrongly judged that they would be safe in Paris, since the Nazis wouldn’t get to the capital. After the war, Kahneman emigrated to Israel, where he first met Tversky and the two began their collaboration in a chaotic nascent society consisting largely of traumatized émigrés who felt that, at any moment, their myriad enemies could destroy them.

To Lewis, Israel is a key part of the reason Kahneman and Tversky were able to embark on such an unorthodox intellectual project. “If these guys had been American academics, would they ever have done this?” he asked. “I think not, because they would have been told, That’s not respectable. It was a huge advantage that they were in the middle of nowhere — they were in Israel and no one was paying attention to them. It helped that they had a personally felt sense of the importance of how people made judgments, because Danny’s father had misjudged Hitler. The Jews in those situations had a sense of judgment and decision-making being matters of life and death, and I think that really helped. But it also just helped that these two characters were the minds that they were. It’s a great question of intellectual history, why it took them, there [to make these advances] — who would have thought?”

One part of the answer, Lewis believes, is that Israel was, in effect, understaffed — it couldn’t afford to have academics do the ivory-tower thing. There was an “insistence that everybody have some practical value, because everybody had to put their shoulder into the enterprise of creating this state,” said Lewis. “If you were going to be a psychologist, you were still going to be pressed into service to do things like redesign the Israeli military selection system. So forcing the intellectuals who might otherwise have retired from daily life into daily life is really important, especially in Danny’s experience.”

Kahneman, after all, was the far more introverted of the two. “If there had been no WW2, he would have been this aerie-faerie French intellectual, and he never would have engaged in the world,” said Lewis. “Israel made him a practical person, and he embraced the role. His insistence that psychology answer practical questions is very peculiarly Israeli.” Both researchers, believes Lewis, were influenced heavily by “that sense that there are no rules and you are making rules up as you go along, and innovation is the norm.”

In fact, the two researchers so internalized the ideas of 1950s and 1960s Israel that when they came to America, supposedly one of the freest, most entrepreneurial countries on earth, they found it “stuffy and hidebound and undynamic,” said Lewis. Kahneman and Tversky were “more American than America, in a funny way.”

To Kahneman and Tversky, individuals like Donald Trump are hopeless cases. Barack Obama, though, is another story …

Yesterday I noted that The Undoing Project reemphasized for me just how dangerous it is to give power to someone like Trump, who has so little capacity for introspection and humility, who is never going to challenge his own biases and thinking in the way Kahneman and Tversky’s research suggests he — and everyone — should.

Lewis didn’t salve my worries at all. “If it works out, it’s going to work out purely by chance,” he said of the imminent Trump presidency. “There’s no design [with Trump]. He’s at the mercy of the very intellectual forces in the mind that Danny and Amos describe, and so we all are. I think they provide a really interesting filter to observe his political life through. They give you a lens onto his behavior, and in addition, the lens on the behavior of the people he energizes.”

Particularly important to understanding Trump’s appeal, argued Lewis, is how the president-elect exploits people’s heuristics, or the mental shortcuts that can also lead to biased thinking and poor decisions. “He was the master of exploiting people’s heuristics” during the campaign, said Lewis. Take the so-called availability heuristic — if you can think of an emotionally gripping example of some event happening (a plane crash, a terrorist attack, or whatever), you are likely to subsequently overestimate the odds of that thing happening. “You describe a vivid incident of a Mexican murdering an American and you leave everybody with the impression that that is more probable than a naturalized citizen murdering a fellow citizen,” said Lewis. “And it’s not true — the statistic is these people behave better than we do. I don’t think he would be aware of any of this in a conscious way, but he does exploit and prey on the weaknesses of the mind.”

Trump both knows how to exploit other people’s biases and heuristics and appears completely biased to his own. Here, Lewis sees a stark contrast between our incoming president and our lame-duck one. “Obama was and is totally aware that you need to watch yourself when you’re making decisions, that the decision is influenced by all kinds of extraneous things, like the mood you’re in when you make it, the way it’s framed, the environment,” and so on, said Lewis.

“Among other things,” he continued, “Obama was not nearly as much at the mercy of his advisers as Trump will be, because people will be able to manipulate Trump by the way people describe things to him, and Obama is able to change the frame, so he can see the decision for what it is rather than how it’s presented to him. I like that in a president — in a weird way I think a lot of Trump’s decisions are going to be made for him by the people around him because he’s manipulable. This is why people say about him, it all depends on who he’s seen last, what he decides to do. I like having a president who is aware of the forces that are at work in his own mind, and now we have a president who seems to be oblivious, and just loves the forces that are at work in his own mind unconditionally.”

Trump isn’t the only leader in love with his own wonderful brain, of course. Tversky and Kahneman found this to be an all-too-common affliction among the powerful, and in fact abandoned one initiative to influence expert decision-making for the better since they encountered so much resistance from bigwigs, who responded to expert guidance with haughty scowls. “They don’t want to hear it because it takes the decisions out of their hands,” said Lewis. “It reduces their power and their ability to just kind of go with their gut. You see this not just in politics. If you want to know why Moneyball took so long to happen, it was in part because nobody wanted geeks telling them who was a good baseball player and who wasn’t, or framing the issue as one of probability.” In Kahneman and Tversky’s case, they more or less realized that even for relatively young people — say, 30-year-olds — bad intellectual habits are frequently set, and it’s hard to convince people to change their ways. They even started working on a curricula to teach schoolkids about the biases and errors they had uncovered, hoping to instill these lessons in the young, but the project never really got off the ground.

Donald Trump, of course, is not young. He is 70 and has been supremely confident in his own abilities and personality for his whole adult life, so Lewis said no one should be expecting much personal growth from him on the humility front. Plus, a big part of Trump’s appeal stems from the fact that he projects so much certainty on subjects he is woefully under-qualified to opine on. “That’s the other problem” that has caused so many experts to reject advice from behavioral experts — “people in leadership positions have the need, or feel the need, to feign certainty about uncertain things, and so to have someone there always reminding you that this is a probabilistic matter is uncomfortable.” There’s a reason Kahneman said in 2015 that if he had a magic wand, he’d rid the human race of overconfidence.

This ties to our species’ well-documented, frequently harmful distaste for uncertainty. All too often, people latch recklessly onto easy and straightforward answers that happen to be quite wrong. It’s yet another human foible Trump has expertly exploited, and is himself victimized by. “That’s one of the real prices we pay for not being comfortable with uncertainty,” said Lewis. “We end up seeking out charlatans, people who will tell us with total certainty stuff that is unknowable, and so you end up with bad financial advisers or quacks in medicine — and Trump, who appeals to that need for total certainty, and seems to preserve it in himself by never acknowledging he made a mistake.”

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