A conversation with best-selling author Michael Lewis and a deep-dive into the limits of the narrative nonfiction formula.
From the ages of seven to 14, Michael Lewis engaged in what he calls a “constant,” “excellent” war with his mother. “My mother is the most sweetly strong-willed person I’ve ever met, and we butted heads for seven years,” Lewis tells me, from his home in Berkeley, California. “When I was 14-years-old, right before the end of the war, in a moment of cool rationality in our family kitchen, my mother turned to me and said, ‘I just want you to know, for the last seven years you’ve made my life sheer hell.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, I won.’” He laughs. “I needed someone to push up against, to shape myself. I needed an immovable object for seven years, and she provided it.”
Seven years is also about how long it took Lewis to write The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, his latest book about the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. Those years devoted to conceiving, researching, outlining, interviewing, and writing the book weren’t quite as confrontational as those between Lewis and his beleaguered mother, but they were still their own form of battle. Lewis, who incidentally lives just down the hill in Berkeley from Kahneman, said that after talking with him on and off for a year and a half, he became quietly confident that there was a great story to be had. Initially, however, Kahneman didn’t want to participate in the book.
Kahneman and Tversky are well known in the field of behavioral economics, and although their names might not ring a bell for everyone else, their foundational ideas probably do. Theories like “hindsight bias” — where outcomes appear obvious after they’ve already happened — and the “peak-end rule” — which says that how you remember an experience is predominately determined by how you felt at its most intense (its peak) and at its end — are now considered, if not common sense, then at least widely understood phenomena. Lewis, whose earlier book Moneyball looked at how statistical analysis might be used to override the often incorrect gut instincts of so-called experts, uses the two psychologists as a lens through which to explore how the human mind often jumps to incorrect conclusions — and how, by better understanding our implicit biases, we might become better decision-makers.