Daniel Kahneman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Intuition and Rationality: Conversation with Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in Economics (2002), Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Princeton University; February 7, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Collaborating with Amos Tversky

An important theme in your work is your collaboration with Amos Tversky. You've talked quite a bit about that in your autobiography for the Nobel Prize. It was very fascinating. I'd like to talk a little about that because it was a friendship in which the conversation had great depth between the two of you and then really impacted the field. Talk a little about the elements of that relationship.

We're both very lucky in a way, but I certainly considered myself extraordinarily lucky. We were close enough so we understood each other very well and we also had complementary skills. I'm more intuitive than he was. He was renowned for his clarity -- just incredible clarity, and the ability to see the big picture. I'm more of an intellectual fumbler but I dig fairly deep, and I also have wild flights of fancy. The combination of those two, of his characteristics and mine, and the fact that we just got along very well and had enormous respect for each other, and that we enjoyed each other's company -- I think we knew it. We had, jointly, a mind that was better than our separate minds. Our joint mind was very, very good. I'm not embarrassed to say that. It was much better than mine. So, we did very good work that way.

There was something in the dynamic that is especially interesting to me, which is that when you think on your own as a scientist, as a researcher, it sometimes takes years before you understand what you're saying. You first say something, you write it, it can be published, and only years later you say, "Oh, I really said that. It was there, it was in my mind." When there are two of you conversing, that process is short circuited. Really, it's quite dramatic. So, I would say vague things and Amos would hear them and he would see what I meant much more clearly than I had when I said it. That was part of the secret of our success, that together, through that process of understanding each other better than the speaker had understood himself, we could make a lot of progress. We also had infinite patience. And we enjoyed spending six hours a day together.

At one point you say that you would have a thought and he could finish it, basically?

When you spend six hours a day with someone for a number of years, we knew each other's jokes, and of course, we could finish each other's thoughts. But we kept surprising each other, so it often was enough. We became very efficient, I think.

You used the term "conversation," this is a subset of that. Before we talk about the research that you got the prize for, there's an intriguing element in your story, which is you're a psychologist and you won the prize for economics. What are your thoughts about the fact that you were working in one discipline and were recognized [in another]? Disciplines always have boundaries that want to limit the conversation, but then the power of what you were saying not only affected psychology but also economics. That was unique, in a way. Talk a little about that.

In the first place, the element of luck was considerable in that development. It really didn't have to be that way. There was luck at several stages. There was something that Amos and I did together which had something to do with the psychology of single questions, which caused many people to pay attention to our work. We published our questions that explored flaws in human intuitive thinking, but our questions were simple and each one made a point, and they were part of the articles we published. That turned out to be quite important to what happened to us, because the readers would read this and then the errors were not the errors of somebody else, you know, some subjects [whom we had interviewed]. They knew, they could recognize in themselves, that "Oh, yes, this is the way my mind works." This was almost part of our rhetoric, not of the substance, but the rhetoric was very effective. So, we had economists paying attention to our work early on.

Then when we worked on decision making, which was the second thing we did together, we published the theory paper in Econometrica, which is the prestige theory journal in economics. We were not intending to influence economics at all. It was just the best journal for that kind of article. If we had published exactly the same article in Psychological Review it would not have got the Nobel Prize, it [would have been seen as] a trivial detail. If we'd had a hostile referee in Econometrica we would have gone to Psych Review, but the big event that caused the prize is that some economists were interested, particularly an economist who's now my closest friend, Richard Thaler, who became interested in our work. He is the one who both taught me economics and brought these ideas into economics for their behavioral [value.]

So, it's because of the work of economists that I got the prize. I didn't get the prize for work that Amos and I did just because it was very good work. We got the prize (or I got the prize, because he couldn't share in it) because it had an impact on economics; but the impact was because people in economics saw it was relevant. They were a minority of people, and they did brilliant work.

Does this tell us anything about new ideas and disciplines, a general proposition that innovation maybe sometimes has to come from outside?

What I learned was something I [already] knew.

Amos Tversky and I were approached by the person who is now the president of the Russell Sage Foundation, Eric Wanner, very early in the 1980s, twenty-five years ago. He asked us what could be done to bring psychology and economics together. I said this was not a project on which we could spend a lot of money, honestly, and I told him that there was absolutely no point in encouraging psychologists to influence economics, but that if there were economists who were interested he should support them. Indeed, two years later, Richard Thaler, whose name I mentioned, came to spend a year with me in Vancouver and we had a glorious year and we published a number of articles together, some of them quite important, actually, and that was the beginning of behavioral economics.

Looking back, what comments would you like to make about creativity? From what we've just talked about, is there a point to be made that would help us understand that? We've talked about collaboration, we've talked about research design, and then this funny set of information or thinking passing from one discipline to another.

People have very different tastes. Intellectually they have different tastes and different skill sets, and so on. I know where my ideas come from and pretty much what characterizes them. They're very simple. I tend to see simple things. Sometimes I see simple things that other people haven't seen before, but I don't see very complicated things. Other people are better at seeing complicated things. So, there are different kinds of creativity, and together with Tversky we had a range of possibilities because he was creative in different ways than I was.

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