The Two Friends Who Changed How We Think About How We Think

Sunstein and Thaler in The New Yorker: In 1968, Tversky and Kahneman were both rising stars in the psychology department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They had little else in common. Tversky was born in Israel and had been a military hero. He had a bit of a quiet swagger (along with, incongruously, a slight lisp). He was an optimist, not only because it suited his personality but also because, as he put it, “when you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.” A night owl, he would often schedule meetings with his graduate students at midnight, over tea, with no one around to bother them.

Tversky was a font of memorable one-liners, and he found much of life funny. He could also be sharp with critics. After a nasty academic battle with some evolutionary psychologists, he proclaimed, “Listen to evolutionary psychologists long enough, and you’ll stop believing in evolution.” When asked about artificial intelligence, Tversky replied, “We study natural stupidity.” (He did not really think that people were stupid, but the line was too good to pass up.) He also tossed off such wisdom as “The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.” Managers who spend most of their lives in meetings should post that thought on their office walls.

Early in his career, Tversky was a “mathematical psychologist,” which meant that he used formal models to characterize human behavior. He didn’t care for metaphors: “They replace genuine uncertainty about the world with semantic ambiguity. A metaphor is a cover-up.” He was organized and highly disciplined. His office was spotless; there was nothing on his desk except a pad, a mechanical pencil, and an eraser. (Even Tversky made mistakes.)

If there were a pad and pencil in Daniel Kahneman’s office, on the other hand, Kahneman would struggle to find them. Born in Tel Aviv when his mother was visiting family, he spent his childhood in Paris, speaking French as his first language. His father was a chemist in a cosmetics company. In 1940, the German occupation put the family at risk. Hiding in the South of France, they managed to survive (with the exception of his father, who died in 1944, from untreated diabetes). After the war, the rest of the family immigrated to Palestine.

A constant worrier, Kahneman is an early riser who often wakes up alarmed about something. He is prone to pessimism—claiming that, by expecting the worst, he is never disappointed. This pessimism extends to the expectations he has for his own research, which he likes to question: “I get a sense of movement and discovery whenever I find a flaw in my thinking.” In our own collaborations with Kahneman, we saw this close up, as he would proclaim, at what seemed to be the final stages of some joint work, that he had just discovered a fatal problem with our whole approach and that we would have to give up or start all over again. He was usually wrong about that—but sometimes he was right, and the constant worry made the work much better.

More here.