Answer: Such friendships are rare, but they do happen–and they are worth shooting for.
Here’s a lovely example: the remarkable friendship between psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, as described by Kahneman in his autobiography (Kahneman won the Nobel prize for Economics in 2002 and Tversky would have also shared the prize had be been alive):
From 1968 to 1969, I taught a graduate seminar on the applications of psychology to real-world problems. In what turned out to be a life-changing event, I asked my younger colleague Amos Tversky to tell the class about what was going on in his field of judgment and decision-making. Amos told us about the work of his former mentor, Ward Edwards, whose lab was using a research paradigm in which the subject is shown two bookbags filled with poker chips. The bags are said to differ in their composition (e.g., 70:30 or 30:70 white/red). One of them is randomly chosen, and the participant is given an opportunity to sample successively from it, and required to indicate after each trial the probability that it came from the predominantly red bag. Edwards had concluded from the results that people are “conservative Bayesians”: they almost always adjust their confidence interval in the proper direction, but rarely far enough. A lively discussion developed around Amos’s talk. The idea that people were conservative Bayesian did not seem to fit with the everyday observation of people commonly jumping to conclusions. It also appeared unlikely that the results obtained in the sequential sampling paradigm would extend to the situation, arguably more typical, in which sample evidence is delivered all at once. Finally, the label of ‘conservative Bayesian’ suggested the implausible image of a process that gets the correct answer, then adulterates it with a bias. I learned recently that one of Amos’s friends met him that day and heard about our conversation, which Amos described as having severely shaken his faith in the neo-Bayesian idea. I do remember that Amos and I decided to meet for lunch to discuss our hunches about the manner in which probabilities are “really” judged. There we exchanged personal accounts of our own recurrent errors of judgment in this domain, and decided to study the statistical intuitions of experts.
I spent the summer of 1969 doing research at the Applied Psychological Research Unit in Cambridge, England. Amos stopped there for a few days on his way to the United States. I had drafted a questionnaire on intuitions about sampling variability and statistical power, which was based largely on my personal experiences of incorrect research planning and unsuccessful replications. The questionnaire consisted of a set of questions, each of which could stand on its own – this was to be another attempt to do psychology with single questions. Amos went off and administered the questionnaire to participants at a meeting of the Mathematical Psychology Association, and a few weeks later we met in Jerusalem to look at the results and write a paper.
The experience was magical. I had enjoyed collaborative work before, but this was something different. Amos was often described by people who knew him as the smartest person they knew. He was also very funny, with an endless supply of jokes appropriate to every nuance of a situation. In his presence, I became funny as well, and the result was that we could spend hours of solid work in continuous mirth. The paper we wrote was deliberately humorous – we described a prevalent belief in the “law of small numbers,” according to which the law of large numbers extends to small numbers as well. Although we never wrote another humorous paper, we continued to find amusement in our work – I have probably shared more than half of the laughs of my life with Amos.
And we were not just having fun. I quickly discovered that Amos had a remedy for everything I found difficult about writing. No wet-mush problem for him: he had an uncanny sense of direction. With him, movement was always forward. Progress might be slow, but each of the myriad of successive drafts that we produced was an improvement – this was not something I could take for granted when working on my own. Amos’s work was always characterized by confidence and by a crisp elegance, and it was a joy to find those characteristics now attached to my ideas as well. As we were writing our first paper, I was conscious of how much better it was than the more hesitant piece I would have written by myself. I don’t know exactly what it was that Amos found to like in our collaboration – we were not in the habit of trading compliments -but clearly he was also having a good time. We were a team, and we remained in that mode for well over a decade. The Nobel Prize was awarded for work that we produced during that period of intense collaboration.
At the beginning of our collaboration, we quickly established a rhythm that we maintained during all our years together. Amos was a night person, and I was a morning person. This made it natural for us to meet for lunch and a long afternoon together, and still have time to do our separate things. We spent hours each day, just talking. When Amos’s first son Oren, then fifteen months old, was told that his father was at work, he volunteered the comment “Aba talk Danny.” We were not only working, of course – we talked of everything under the sun, and got to know each other’s mind almost as well as our own. We could (and often did) finish each other’s sentences and complete the joke that the other had wanted to tell, but somehow we also kept surprising each other.
We did almost all the work on our joint projects while physically together, including the drafting of questionnaires and papers. And we avoided any explicit division of labor. Our principle was to discuss every disagreement until it had been resolved to mutual satisfaction, and we had tie-breaking rules for only two topics: whether or not an item should be included in the list of references (Amos had the casting vote), and who should resolve any issue of English grammar (my dominion). We did not initially have a concept of a senior author. We tossed a coin to determine the order of authorship of our first paper, and alternated from then on until the pattern of our collaboration changed in the 1980s.
One consequence of this mode of work was that all our ideas were jointly owned. Our interactions were so frequent and so intense that there was never much point in distinguishing between the discussions that primed an idea, the act of uttering it, and the subsequent elaboration of it. I believe that many scholars have had the experience of discovering that they had expressed (sometimes even published) an idea long before they really understood its significance. It takes time to appreciate and develop a new thought. Some of the greatest joys of our collaboration-and probably much of its success – came from our ability to elaborate each other’s nascent thoughts: if I expressed a half-formed idea, I knew that Amos would be there to understand it, probably more clearly than I did, and that if it had merit he would see it. Like most people, I am somewhat cautious about exposing tentative thoughts to others – I must first make sure that they are not idiotic. In the best years of the collaboration, this caution was completely absent. The mutual trust and the complete lack of defensiveness that we achieved were particularly remarkable because both of us – Amos even more than I – were known to be severe critics. Our magic worked only when we were by ourselves. We soon learned that joint collaboration with any third party should be avoided, because we became competitive in a threesome.
Amos and I shared the wonder of together owning a goose that could lay golden eggs – a joint mind that was better than our separate minds. The statistical record confirms that our joint work was superior, or at least more influential, than the work we did individually (Laibson and Zeckhauser, 1998). Amos and I published eight journal articles during our peak years (1971-1981), of which five had been cited more than a thousand times by the end of 2002. Of our separate works, which in total number about 200, only Amos’ theory of similarity (Tversky, 1977) and my book on attention (Kahneman, 1973) exceeded that threshold. The special style of our collaborative work was recognized early by a referee of our first theoretical paper (on representativeness), who caused it to be rejected by Psychological Review. The eminent psychologist who wrote that review – his anonymity was betrayed years later – pointed out that he was familiar with the separate lines of work that Amos and I had been pursuing, and considered both quite respectable. However, he added the unusual remark that we seemed to bring out the worst in each other, and certainly should not collaborate. He found most objectionable our method of using multiple single questions as evidence – and he was quite wrong there as well.
Alas, the close, collaborative friendship was unable to last. Kahneman wrote:
Anne Treisman and I married and moved together to U.B.C. in 1978, and Amos and Barbara Tversky settled in Stanford that year. Amos and I were then at the peak of our joint game, and completely committed to our collaboration. For a few years, we managed to maintain it, by spending every second weekend together and by placing multiple phone calls each day, some lasting several hours. We completed the study of framing in that mode, as well as a study of the ‘conjunction fallacy’ in judgment (Tversky and Kahneman, 1983). But eventually the goose that had laid the golden eggs languished, and our collaboration tapered off. Although this outcome now appears inevitable, it came as a painful surprise to us. We had completely failed to appreciate how critically our successful interaction had depended on our being together at the birth of every significant idea, on our rejection of any formal division of labor, and on the infinite patience that became a luxury when we could meet only periodically. We struggled for years to revive the magic we had lost, but in vain.
We were again trying when Amos died. When he learned in the early months of 1996 that he had only a few months to live, we decided to edit a joint book on decision-making that would cover some of the progress that had been made since we had started working together on the topic more than twenty years before (Kahneman and Tversky, 2000). We planned an ambitious preface as a joint project, but I think we both knew from the beginning that we would not be granted enough time to complete it. The preface I wrote alone was probably my most painful writing experience.
Kahneman wrote a beautiful eulogy to Amos Tversky, with this touching ending:
Much of the joy was social. Almost all of Amos’ work was collaborative. He enjoyed working with colleagues and students, and he was supremely good at it. And his joy was infectious. The 12 or 13 years in which most of our work was joint were years of interpersonal and intellectual bliss. Everything was interesting, almost everything was funny, and there was the recurrent joy of seeing an idea take shape. So many times in those years we shared the magical experience of one of us saying something which the other would understand more deeply than the speaker had done. Contrary to the old laws of information theory, it was common for us to find that more information was received than had been sent. I have almost never had that experience with anyone else. If you have not had it, you don’t know how marvelous collaboration can be …
What are some other great collaborative friendships that have stood the test of time and borne great fruit and delight for the participants?
- Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger
- Bill Gates and Warren Buffett