Michael Lewis: 'The outside world was hostile'

Michael Lewis

He’s been a regular on the American talk show circuit for years now, fielding questions on subjects like the global financial crisis, how low-budget sports teams achieve success and, more recently, the psychology behind the Trump presidential victory.
Michael Lewis, 56, whose books have been made into movies including The Big Short, Moneyball and The Blind Side, has now focused his attentions on a true, but unique, love story.

The Undoing Project follows the story of two psychology professors, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who met in war-torn 1960s Israel and went on to form an extraordinary intellectual collaboration.
Together they developed the field of behavioural economics, with Kahneman going on to win a Nobel Prize (his acclaimed book, Thinking Fast And Slow, sold 1.7 million copies).
“It’s a love story at the heart of it, which gets sadder and sadder,” Lewis reveals.
“They fell for each other because each had something the other wished he’d had. Amos wanted to be a literary poet, but he was a logician, a scientist type. Danny, when he was young, forced himself into science, but I think he was really a poet or a literary type.”
The story has the potential for a great movie – two heterosexual intellectuals fall in love through their work, spend so much time together their wives and families feel neglected, then fall out when one is feted more than the other and finally reunite before a tragic ending.
“I’ve had offers already, but I haven’t sold it,” says the New Orleans-born author and financial journalist. “I want to give it a little more time. Someone will buy the film rights, that’s not the issue. The issue is, will they make it? I’ve learned through experience that it really matters whose hands you put the thing into.
“I’m going to Los Angeles to talk to the people who want to buy it. The two parts of the men could be spectacular. Like Moneyball or The Big Short, it’s not the most obvious movie, but is going to require someone who’s got a passion for it and the talent to pull it off.”
Lewis, who’s married to fine art photographer Tabitha Soren, with whom he has three children, lives in Berkeley, California, working from a redwood cabin in the grounds of his home. He switches off by coaching his children in athletics, playing basketball and tennis.
He’s been to Oscar ceremonies when his movies have been up for awards – Moneyball received six nominations, The Blind Side scooped a Best Actress gong for Sandra Bullock and The Big Short won Best Adapted Screenplay.
But Lewis had limited involvement in the films.
“The movie business is uncomfortable with an author who just sells the rights and vanishes because they’re afraid you’re going to pop up after it’s made and complain about it. They insist on pretending you are important to them.
“You have this elaborate kabuki ritual dance, where they pretend to be interested in what you think, and you pretend to believe they are interested. So I watched it, but I didn’t have any effect on it.
“I’ve loved the films. I’ve been amazed by how well they’ve turned out. One of the reasons they’ve come out that well is because nobody’s listened to me!”
He did, however, hang out with Brad Pitt and Christian Bale when The Big Short was being made.
“They are amazingly normal people. With three movies, I’ve met nobody who behaved badly, or tried to pull rank or seem important. The environment feels like a collection of craftsmen who really care about how they do the work.”
He says he could see Christian Bale in the role of Tversky, and Sacha Baron Cohen as Kahneman: “To have him play a depressive neurotic – and he himself is half Israeli – I think he’d completely get it.”
In real life, the two psychologists published a series of seminal articles in the general field of judgment and decision-making, discovering that we are programmed to make certain kinds of mistakes, not just out of stupidity.
“Collections of minds can make errors, markets can go wrong, elections can go wrong.”
What makes the story so compelling is that the men were complete opposites.
“Danny was always sure he was wrong. Amos was always sure he was right. Danny didn’t go to parties. Amos was the life and soul of the party. Danny was massively untidy. Amos was pedantically neat.
“They were investigating human fallibility, largely by investigating Danny’s fallibility and the mistakes he made and noticed himself making. He was generally neurotic and defensive about the mistakes he made. Amos gave him a safe space to investigate them.
“Instead of feeling mildly ashamed for his errors, he felt loved for them.”
Throughout their collaboration, during their waking hours they could usually be found together. They’d disappear into a seminar room, and could be heard either laughing together or hollering at each other.
“The work was an excuse to spend time together. It was odd for intellectual life to generate this sort of passion.”
Their close asexual relationship affected their families, Lewis agrees. Kahneman married and had a son and daughter, but seemed to live for his work and wasn’t a very happy person. He later left his wife to marry a British-born psychologist Anne Treisman, but there’s no doubt the wider family felt neglected because of their friendship.
“Danny’s first marriage unravelled and his second marriage almost unravelled. Amos made it clear that Danny was the most important relationship in his life. It’s odd that two men, who were such raging heterosexuals, were able to divide their minds and their love lives so extremely. There was a sense that everybody else in their lives felt like second-class citizens.
“The moment I love most in the relationship is when Danny leaves his wife for another woman, and with that other woman on what’s supposed to be an incredibly romantic trip to Paris, instead of being wholly with her, he’s engaged in writing love letters to Amos.”
Tversky was also married with three children, and Lewis observes: “The wives were jealous of the two men.”
However, after 12 years, from 1969-1981, their partnership soured when they moved to North America, leaving Israel, where they’d been of equal status.
“When they moved to North America, Amos became a global superstar and Danny was neglected. Amos received the MacArthur [Fellowship] ‘genius’ award alone for their joint work. The outside world was hostile to the collaboration, assuming Amos did all the work.”
As Tversky embraced the stardom, Kahneman resented not being given equal credit.
They lost touch for more than a decade – until, when Tversky discovered he was dying from cancer, he called Kahneman and told him he had six months to live.
Tversky died in 1996, aged 59.
“They spent the last six months close. They didn’t work together, but they talked every day,” says Lewis.
“Among the last things Amos said to Danny was, ‘I want you to know that out of all the people on the planet, you’re the one who has caused me the most pain’. Danny said that because Amos was dying, he bit his tongue and didn’t say it back.”
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis is published by Allen Lane, priced £25. Available now.

Written by Andrew Moore