The ‘sideways lookers’

Jon Sutton listens to The Adam Buxton Podcast, along with his new BBC Radio 4 offering You’re Doing It Wrong. Plus a Q+A with Adam, and a selection from his conversation with Michael Lewis about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Adam Buxton – comedian, writer and actor – has been a constant presence in my headphones for more than two decades now. Years of proper laugh-out-loud moments on my commute thanks to the Adam and Joe radio shows, and latterly 66 episodes and counting of his own podcast (he describes himself as ‘guy with vague job’). Seek out everything you can: he’s an extremely amusing man (and his dog’s even funnier). But what makes Buxton interesting for us is that he’s (increasingly?) dipping his toes into the world of psychology.

That may often be a passing mention – Milgram, Zimbardo, Gladwell, Vince Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders – but the episode with author Michael Lewis should be required listening for any psychologist. One of Adam’s recurring themes, for which he draws upon a well of personal experience, is ‘double act dynamics’. He’s so witty, candid and intelligent on this that I keep badgering him via Twitter to write a book on it. Lewis is the perfect foil for this interest, given that his book The Undoing Project considers perhaps the greatest ever double act in psychology – Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Pretty much every word from Lewis in the podcast is utterly fascinating. Kahneman and Tversky are well known for their work on cognitive biases. They are generally considered the founding fathers of ‘behavioural economics’, which now pervades so many aspects of life. But I’m finding myself more and more drawn to ‘the psychology of psychology’… what goes on behind the scenes, the foibles and failings of everyday folk, which scientists are in no way immune to!

The story behind the title of the book, The Undoing Project, encapsulates this. Kahneman’s nephew, an air force navigator, dies in a crash on his final day of service. At the funeral, Kahneman watches others, and observes many ‘if only’ statements. He realises there’s a structure, that people are imagining alternative realities by undoing an event at the end and working back. This is a point in the relationship where Kahneman is becoming sensitive to Tversky’s growing fame, so he writes long letters to him and feels like the response is inadequate. Lewis found a folder, ‘The undoing project’, in Amos’s file drawers, where he was ‘intensely trying to turn Danny’s insights into a logic they can publish… he’s clearly really interested in it’. When Lewis shows Kahneman the folder, he is ‘ashen’. ‘He went, “Oh my God, he was still listening. This changes my way of thinking about what was going on”.’

So Lewis called the book The Undoing Project partly due to that, partly due to the sense that one way of describing the whole enterprise of Kahneman and Tversky is that they were undoing a very false view of human nature, by looking at behaviour from a different perspective. Until then had we, as psychologists, been doing it wrong? Another offering from Buxton, BBC Radio 4’s You’re Doing It Wrong, considers whether we’re all doing everything wrong… work, parenting, eating, etc. In the first episode, on our chase for the ‘dream job’, he talked to guests including Stephan Lewandowsky (University of Bristol). Buxton’s trademark humour was still very much to the fore… ‘I love to look sideways, that’s what I’m known for,’ he has said in self-mocking tones…’most people look at things straight on, don’t they? But not me – I’m the sideways looker.’ Maybe more psychologists should be ‘sideways lookers’.

I asked Adam some questions about his interest in psychology.

Are you finding yourself increasingly drawn towards psychology?
I’ve always found psychology interesting. Trying to understand how and why people think and do the things they do is like learning a magic trick. I often feel overwhelmed and baffled by other people’s behaviour and even more so by my own, so I think about what goes on in people’s heads a lot. Psychology seems to be a good way to be what Carrie Fisher called ‘a spy in the house of me’. I guess that’s just another way of saying ‘Know Thyself’. As I said to Michael in the podcast, the process seems to me very similar to the way comedians approach a ‘bit’ i.e. trying to identify patterns of thought and behaviour that are easily relatable then riffing on them.

My understanding is very superficial though… a lot of Jon Ronson and Malcolm Gladwell (possibly controversial figures in psychology?), and I got some interesting stuff from a book called 50 Psychology Classics that summarised the work of a number of popular psychology tomes. That’s where I heard about people like Harry Harlow, Stanley Milgram, Abraham Maslow, Stephen Pinker, John Gottman, etc., and followed up on quite a few of them.

Do you have any tips for psychologists being interviewed for podcasts, or creating their own?
I’d love to hook up with a psychologist for my podcast (as long as they’re good talkers!) When I was little I liked the interviews Anthony Clare would do. Finding interesting people to hang your shtick on – that’s what most podcasts (including mine) try to do. If you weren’t going the celebrity guest route, some sort of self-help style approach with a solid psychological underpinning would be popular. There’s a few of these already but they’re generally a little too dopey and touchy-feely for me. Keep it accessible but scientific, i.e. case studies, acknowledgement of conflicting points of view, data, etc. and I’m in!

What’s your favourite cognitive bias, as it applies to you?
I’m very much a Peak End Rule man (is that a bias?). It’s all about how strong your closer is. That’s why my lifelong affection for David Bowie became much more profound after he died. The way he wrapped up his life was inspiring, I thought. I hope he felt that way. If I knew I could live my last few years something like the way he did, I’d enjoy being alive a lot more. Not that I don’t enjoy it very much, but I could do with being less fearful.

What’s the most interesting aspect of ‘double act dynamics’ for you?
The fragile symbiosis. The possibility of creating something far greater than the sum of those two parts. The hardest thing to appreciate when you’re in the double act is that although your contribution may appear the weaker/less important of the two elements, it’s vital to what you produce together. No one wants to be the straight person, but if you can get beyond your ego and protect the relationship, you’ll probably be happier and more successful in the long run, and if morons write history with you as the weak link, then fuck ’em. But like a marriage, sometimes it’s just not worth staying together, and there’s an art to knowing when to quit too. By the way, I don’t think I’m talking about myself and Joe here as we’re still very friendly, but we’ve certainly had tense moments!

What follows is an edited selection from episode 66 of The Adam Buxton Podcast: a conversation with American writer Michael Lewis about his book The Undoing Project, which tells the story of the friendship and fascinating work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman. 

Michael: [Daniel Kahneman] was sensitive and needy… needy in a way that Amos Tversky seldom had time for, but he identified clearly Kahneman’s brilliance. One of Amos’s great contributions to the world is to identify just how valuable Danny’s mind was. I think others didn’t see just how original what was coming out of it was. But in their relationship, there’s no question that Danny is the ‘stay-at-home wife’ and Amos is the alpha male who’s coming home with red meat every night. Everybody thought that Amos was the genius, and Amos would say, ‘It’s the strangest thing to me, because Danny is the one that’s got all the ideas!’

Amos Tversky had this mesmerising effect on people socially. They would come away from encounters with him saying they had just met the smartest man they’d ever met. I interviewed dozens of people who said Amos Tversky is the smartest person I ever met. There was a psychologist at the University of Michigan, Richard Nisbett, who after he got to know Amos designed what he said was the shortest intelligence test ever created, he called it the Tversky Test. It was the longer it takes you after you’ve met Amos to figure out that Amos is smarter than you, the stupider you are. Even Danny had that reaction to Amos.

Because he’s so mesmerising and charismatic, he gets all the credit for the work. People look at Kahneman/Tversky and they say what is Kahneman for, even though they should have thought, ‘Wow, this work is different from anything Amos did by himself, or Danny. It’s an alchemy, something neither of them could have done alone.’

You say every double act has this tension in it. A lot of academic partnerships aren’t quite double acts because they don’t get that much attention. Double acts come under scrutiny, you’re on stage, you’re on air, wherever you are, you have a sense of being watched and evaluated. As long as Danny and Amos were in Israel and in a small place, I don’t think they thought of themselves as performing for an audience. But they moved to the United States, for complicated reasons… Amos didn’t want to go but Danny followed a woman there… and the moment they were on a bigger stage, and the rewards were increased, the stakes were increased… it puts the pressure onto an academic collaboration that would normally only be put on a double act, a performance act. It exacerbates the problems already in a relationship, that Danny needs affirmation.

Adam: Was he able to articulate that to Tversky?

Michael: Not well enough. The letters have a manly reticence about them, but when the relationship starts to fracture… their relationship has the shape of a love affair. When they meet it’s like love at first sight, and there’s this passionate ten years… they’re not having sex, but they fuck each other’s ideas… then they have this horrible falling out. Amos saved the letters from Danny, and what Danny’s articulating is more subtle than ‘I’m sick of you getting all the credit, I want some credit’. What Danny’s articulating is ‘I’m growing weary of you believing the way the world sees our relationship. The more adulation you receive, the more dismissive you’re becoming of my ideas. The more I think that you actually believe that you’re the stronger person in the relationship and that you don’t need me.’ And the fuel for the work, Danny felt, was a feeling of uncritical acceptance between the two of them. Danny was an idea factory. He just spewed stuff. Some of it was useful. All of it was probably interesting. Amos’s gift was to dig through it and see what was really valuable, and give Danny the confidence to shape it and make it ready for prime time. The minute that Danny starts to feel ‘Amos is criticising my ideas as opposed to accepting them’, he starts to clam up.

It’s very much like an improv comedy, the relationship… it only works if both sides feel the other is trying to make them look good. If both sides are accepting whatever the other person does, and building on it. Danny did say from the very beginning that this improvisational aspect only existed when they were in private. When they were in a room, just the two of them, it was fine. The minute they were at a party or in front of a class together, they became competitive with each other and it vanished. So he said actually, in writing the book, I was going to have a problem, that no one could ever have seen how we were together because we weren’t that way when other people were watching us.

Photo credit: Matt Crockett

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber