Jamie Martin

  • The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World by Michael Lewis
    Allen Lane, 362 pp, £25.00, December 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 25473 8

In 1975, as Henry Kissinger was trying to negotiate a settlement to the Arab-Israeli War, he warned the Israeli government that a breakdown in the talks would bring catastrophe to the Middle East. The Israeli minister of foreign affairs, Yigan Allon, doubted this and convened a group of experts to investigate. It was led by Zvi Lanir, a political scientist and official at the Israeli foreign ministry, and Daniel Kahneman, who taught at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and had spent the war, along with his colleague Amos Tversky, in a unit of psychologists embedded with the IDF and tasked with studying troop morale in the Sinai. Lanir and Kahneman assigned a numerical probability to various consequences of a collapse in the talks: a new war with Syria and Egypt; the fall of the Saudi royal family; the Soviets threatening nuclear attack. They were surprised their study made so little impression. Officials, it turned out, didn’t consider a 10 per cent chance of all-out war with Syria very significant. ‘The understanding of numbers is so weak that they don’t communicate anything,’ Kahneman later said. ‘No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.’

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[*] Glen Newey wrote about Thinking, Fast and Slow in the LRB of 22 March 2012.