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Hire Thine Enemy: Daniel Kahneman on Adversarial Collaboration

Daniel Kahneman makes an important point, one rarely addressed so directly in academic circles – that the ego-clashes we tend to excuse among high-achievers are dangerously counterproductive when it comes to advancing human knowledge. He proposes adversarial collaboration as one alternative. 

I think that a lot of the higher quality of American discourse, when it has been high, is out of respect for the fact that, yes, these [founding documents] are interesting and valuable things that impose respect for people of other views.  And, at this point, things have deteriorated to the point that it is as if morally wrong to have a sort of attitude of presumptive respect toward someone you disagree with.  That’s just bizarre and it’s obviously not a formula for civilized society.

       – Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author of Gilead, on Big Think TV

Having grown up in Israel, psychologist Daniel Kahneman knows a lot about conflict. And he doesn’t like it. While the Nobel laureate psychologist sees the Israeli-Palestinian tension as tragically unresolvable, he has approached professional disagreements throughout his long career with a strategy he calls adversarial collaboration; whenever possible, Kahneman remains in open dialogue with his most outspoken critics, going so far on one occasion as to co-author a paper with a dissenting colleague, presenting both scientists’ differing conclusions. 

Kahneman describes an intense aversion to anger as part of his natural temperament. 

Daniel Kahneman: I happen to be an extreme case…for me, anger goes into depression very quickly.  I hate being angry and so I hate the adversarial exchanges that you frequently find in the social sciences and actually in the physical sciences as well, where people are snide and they use sarcasm.  I haven’t initiated that much, not because I’m a saint, but because I hate being angry,

His modesty aside, Kahneman makes an important point, one rarely addressed so directly in academic circles – that the ego-clashes we tend to excuse among high-achievers are dangerously counterproductive when it comes to advancing human knowledge. In the social sciences, and (possibly to a lesser extent) in the physical sciences, they can result in warring schools of thought whose differences (think Freud and Jung) persist for generations. 

VIDEO: Daniel Kahneman on Adversarial Collaboration

When novelist and American cultural critic Marilynne Robinson spoke with us recently, she described incivility in American culture and politics as “increasingly axiomatic.” If it is true that an ideal of collective action toward a common goal is losing ground to snarky tribalism, if the ideals of mutual respect and fair play on which the nation was founded are no longer dominant (or even present) in American discourse, then perhaps we’re in need of concrete models like adversarial collaboration to remind us. 

The intense civic-mindlessness of internet trolls has driven one of our own bloggers – a champion of rational debate on difficult topics – to disable comments on his blog and write at some length about the difference between (worthwhile) intellectual disagreement and (completely pointless) personal abuse. 

What’s the Significance? 

Kahneman admits that it isn’t at all easy to collaborate with those who disagree with you. As a psychologist, he’s well aware that such encounters – if not approached with a strong moral purpose and effort of will – tend to trigger fight/flight reactions. But he cites his own long-time collaboration with Gary Klein – a colleague whose ideas on intuition differed deeply from his own; after six or seven years of publishing papers together, he and Klein had managed to iron out most of their differences, advancing the field significantly in the process. 

Daniel Kahneman:  There are different forms of adversarial collaboration. One form is that you have people who disagree on some theoretical issue trying to conduct experiments that will resolve their differences or reduce their differences. In some cases they’re friends, so you can easily agree, although you agree that when you write up the results you will write them in two voices, so you don’t not commit yourself to agreeing on the interpretation of the result.  Sometimes you need an arbiter to run the experiment.  That is when relations are more tense and sometimes instead of the reply and rejoinder format you can agree to write a joint article in which you first settle what you agree on and then what you disagree on. 

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You have to be willing not to win. That is, you have to be willing to accept a draw and to see that in the interest of science and civility and other things a draw is better than a win. 

So it’s a little uncomfortable. What worthy endeavor isn’t? And if we’re in it (whatever it may be) for our own comfort and personal glory, maybe it’s time to consider a different line of work. 

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

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