The Undoing Project

How does a psychologist (who happens to be a Princeton University professor) win a Nobel Prize in economics? That is the question best-selling author Michael Lewis seeks to answer in his new book, “The Undoing Project,” published by W. W. Norton & Co.

Lewis, a 1982 alumnus of Princeton University, documents the unlikely collaboration and friendship of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Both spent their formative years in Israel, and both were academic standouts from an early age, but the similarities end there, as Lewis reveals through interviews with Kahneman as well as colleagues and relatives. (Tversky died in 1996; Kahneman is professor of psychology and public affairs, emeritus, at Princeton.)

Kahneman was born in France, a Jewish boy in Paris during the rise of Hitler, but was able to avoid capture by the Nazis thanks to his chemist father’s value to his employer, who helped the family hide. His father died of illness during the war, and his mother moved the young family to Israel. His early experiences led him to be driven by doubt and not to trust others, but he was fascinated by them.

“Even as a child he had an almost theoretical interest in other people — why they thought what they thought, why they behaved as they did. His direct experience of them was limited. He attended school but avoided social contact with his teachers and classmates. He had no friends. Even acquaintances were life-threatening. On the other hand, he witnessed, from a certain distance, a lot of interesting behavior.”

Tversky was born in Israel, and while physically small was daring and adventurous. He was known for the stories he would tell and for being the smartest person in any room he walked into.

Their academic paths landed both of them at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where by the late 1960s they were inseparable: “The students who once wondered why the two brightest stars of Hebrew University kept their distance from each other now wondered how two so radically different personalities could . . . become soul mates.”

Together Kahneman and Tversky would make discoveries that uprooted prevailing beliefs about human judgement, which had been that people have an intrinsic sense of probability and statistics. Instead they concluded that people used heuristics — rules of thumb — such as representativeness, a comparison to a mental model; and availability, that a more easily imagined scenario will be judged to be more probable.

They also studied decision making, and again upended existing theories, this time from economics: that people making decisions seek to maximize utility. The psychologists realized that people instead sought to minimize regret. Moreover, they uncovered divergent behavior when people were approached with the possibility of loss rather than the possibility of gain.

“When you gave a person a choice between a gift of $500 and a 50-50 shot at winning $1,000, he picked the sure thing. Give that same person a choice between losing $500 for sure and 50-50 risk of losing $1,000, and he took the bet. He became a risk seeker. The odds that people demanded to accept a certain loss over the chance of some greater loss crudely mirrored the odds they demanded to forgo a certain gain for the chance of a greater gain. For example, to get people to prefer a 50-50 chance of $1,000 over some certain gain, you had to lower the certain gain to around $370.”

It was work like this that caught the attention of economists and ultimately the Nobel Prize committee, which honored Kahneman in 2002 “for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty.”

Understanding the Digital World

On the Princeton University campus computer science professor Brian Kernighan is known, among other things, for his course “Computers in Our World,” or what troglodytes call “E-mails for Females.”

But for non-technical people not lucky enough to be Princeton students, Kernighan’s newest book, “Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security,” is the next best thing. Published this year by Princeton University Press, it offers a broad overview of how computers work — from bits and bytes to the physical configuration of chips and circuits — as well as how software is created, including the basics of common programming languages.

Beyond the individual computer, the book moves on to networks and the Internet — both its obvious utility as well as the issues of privacy and security that surround it. If you’ve ever wondered how Google makes its billions and knows to show you ads for the exact pair of shoes you recently considered purchasing, or what happens when you engage with that Nigerian prince offering you millions or open the attachment that doesn’t seem quite right, Kernighan explains it in a way that is easily understood.

And while the book is essentially a textbook, trivia lovers will delight in the factoids and bits of history. For example, “the word bit is a contraction of binary digit that was coined by the statistician John Tukey in the mid-1940s … It is said that Edward Teller, best known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, prefered ‘bigit,’ a term that mercifully didn’t catch on.” Kernighan notes that Bluetooth is named for 10th century Danish king, Harald Bluetooth, who was known for uniting disparate tribes into one kingdom.

The Power of Networks

The idea of networks and networking may seem simple to anyone who has gone to a business card exchange or asked a group of neighbors for the name of a good contractor. But networks are also key to some pretty complex operations, from running a WiFi to ordering search results on Google to making a cat video go viral.

“The Power of Networks answers questions like these for the first time in a way that all of us can understand and use, whether at home, the office, or school,” says the press release for this new book by Christopher Brinton, head of advanced research at Zoomi Inc. and a PhD in electrical engineering from Princeton, and co-author Mung Chiang, electrical engineering professor at Princeton and director of the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education.

The release continues, “Using simple language, analogies, stories, hundreds of illustrations, and no more math than simple addition and multiplication, Brinton and Chiang provide an accessible introduction to the handful of big ideas that drive the technical and social networks we use every day—from cellular phone networks and cloud computing to the Internet and social media platforms.”

Maybe. We took a look at the book and we would say that it’s accessible, but requires a deep dive and persistence. When you’re done, though, you will be able to explain all sorts of modern-day phenomena to your friends, including what makes some crowds wise and others not so wise.