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Book Review: ‘The Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

Imagine you have 30-seconds to answer what 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8 x 9 is. 

The seconds tick by before you blurt out a number. It’s wrong, of course. Everyone gets this one wrong. But the point of the question is not math. When people are asked the exact same problem with the numbers presented in reverse order – 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 – they consistently answer much higher. And that is the actual point.

If the highest number is the leading number, you are primed thereby to believe that the final product of the equation will be much higher. The fact that you’re dealing with all the same numbers either way is irrelevant. This is the power of suggestion. 

Research done by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amon Tversky through experiments of this kind demonstrated that human beings are irrational, and consistently and predictably so, extremely susceptible to subtle influence through the framing of questions and explanations. 

Kahneman and Tversky’s collaborative work and findings are the subject of the Michael Lewis book ‘The Undoing Project’ – well-written and skillfully told. But I don’t want to waste time telling you how good the writing is when the subject matter itself is so fascinating.

The implications and applications of Kahneman and Tversky’s research here are as broad as all of human experience and activity – from interpersonal relationships to education, from politics to religion to economics. Literally anywhere we find ourselves communicating and being communicated to, we will also encounter by chance or accident or intention, the rhetorical equivalent of optical illusions which play tricks on our eyes.

Other books in a similar vein that come to my mind include Niccolò Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ and Edward Bernays’ ‘Propaganda’ and Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals.’ And I say this not because either ‘The Undoing Project’ or the work of Kahneman and Tversky are advocating manipulating and deceiving people. Rather, this book highlights the science of how we can be so easily and consistently misled, either accidentally or on-purpose, when we are not very intentional about our thought-processes and what we believe to be true.

When Jesus says the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind – we do well to consider how the fourth piece of this is so closely related to the other three.

Consider also what the Apostle Peter says. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” The more I meditate on this, the more convinced I am that one of the primary ways that roaring lion devours us is by getting in our heads and playing mind games with us.

The very next thing Peter says gives us this clue. “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

And what, after all, did Jesus say to disciples he sent out? “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men…”

But back to Peter again, who was one of those twelve Jesus sent out to all the towns of Israel. He says this also: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.””

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