When two minds became one (at least for a while): the collaborative genius of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

Can there be an IP subject more elusive than joint creation or invention? One need only consider the recent blog post by fellow Kat Mathilde Pavis (“Claim of joint authorship fails in the Florence Foster Jenkins case”, here), where the court considered notions of collaboration, consent, common design, sufficient contribution, ultimate arbiter, primary skill and secondary skill in the copyright context. Each is challenging enough on its own; when taken together, the analysis becomes almost impenetrably daunting. Even when the analysis is completed, the sense is that the law often does not fully get its legal arms around what it means for a work or invention to be the result of joint effort.

There are times, however, when the collaborative effort is at once unequivocal in its joint provenance and nonpareil in its output. Such was the collaboration between two psychologists--Daniel (everyone seems to refer to him as “Danny) Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman and Tversky; Tversky and Kahneman—it was a collaboration like no other. How special it was the entire world came to know in the fall of 2002, when Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics for paving the way for the field of “behavioral economics”. Tversky would undoubtedly also been a recipient of the award, had he not tragically died in 1996. The story of their friendship was the subject of the 2016 book, “The Undoing Project” written by the acclaimed American author, Michael Lewis (think “Money Ball” and “The Big Short”).

In the words of The New Yorker magazine, the contribution of Kahneman and Tversky to the psychology of judgment and decision-making, as it later migrated to economics, was that they changed “how we think about how we think”. More particularly, the pair laid bare the folly of assuming rationality as necessarily the underlying construct in human thinking. As summarized by the New York Times, their—
“… research showed that people do not always behave rationally when they make decisions, that they generally put more emphasis on risk than benefits and that there are many more quirks in the human reasoning process than many earlier economic and psychological theories had contended… that people tended to see patterns and make connections that were not really there and to base decisions on that.”
Of course, this summary does not begin to capture the path-breaking nature of their collaborative work. Kat readers who want to know more about it are invited to read the book by Lewis. But what makes the book so compelling is ultimately not its discussion on their joint contribution to psychology and economics, as significant as it was, but the nature of their personal relationship, enabling their collaboration to take place and flourish.

It began in 1969, when both were already rising academic stars at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Kahneman invited Tversky to take part in a Kahneman-led seminar. Their personalities could not have been more different. Kahneman was a survivor in the South of France during World War II France, from then on, a constant worrier; Tversky, born in what was then Mandatory Palestine, was supremely confident. So the question reportedly was: How do you measure how smart you are? Answer: how quickly you realize that Tversky is smarter than you are. Each was brilliant (each a genius?) Still, as Lewis writes: “Danny was always sure that he was wrong. Amos was always sure that he was right.”

Nevertheless, the take-away from Tversky’s participation in the Kahneman seminar became the thing of legend. After the session, the story goes, an agitated Tversky told a faculty friend: “You won’t believe what happened to me. Brilliant talk [Kahneman told Tversky], but I don’t believe a word of it.” Improbably, the two then became drawn to each other, taking long walks, sitting in a café or holed-up in a small seminar room on The Hebrew University campus—always challenging each other. They composed together, reportedly collaborating on every word, with Kahneman the typist, since it seems that Tversky never mastered the art of typing, Over the course of the 1970’s, they jointly produced the papers that would change the way that psychology was understood.

Lewis unabashedly uses the word “love” to describe their friendship during that time. It was more than the “Vulcan mind meld” that Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame would carry out on the Enterprise, making two minds as one. While Mr. Spock was devoid of emotion, the “mind meld” between Kahneman and Tversky was a profound combination of mind and feeling. But the intensity ultimately did not (could not?) last. Tversky moved in the late 1970’s from Jerusalem to Stanford; Kahneman also left Jerusalem at that time, first to the University of British Columbia, later to Berkeley and finally to Princeton. The collaboration diminished and there were moments of tension as each sought other professional collaborators. Both continued to be productive, but the mutual genius that characterized their work in the 1970’s did not sustainable itself. By 1996, Tversky had passed away.

There is a personal Kat angle in all of this. In the early 1970’s, this Kat was a research kitten at The Hebrew University. There, he befriended an American psychologist (mentioned from time to time in the Lewis book) who had come to Jerusalem to work with Kahneman and Tversky. Try as he could, this Kat could not quite understand what the three of them were up to. We all went in our own separate directions, this Kat vaguely aware that Kahneman and Tversky were onto something special. How special the entire world came to know in the fall of 2002, when Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize. This Kat then realized that there had been two degrees of separation between him and their collaborative genius in the 1970’s.

Whenever this Kat is called upon to opine on the question of joint creation or invention, he thinks about Kahneman and Tversky. Now he has the Lewis book to enhance his appreciation of their collective genius and the relationship that made it happen. Kat readers are invited to do so as well.

By Neil Wilkof
When two minds became one (at least for a while): the collaborative genius of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky When two minds became one (at least for a while): the collaborative genius of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 Rating: 5

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