The Annual Question

by John Derbyshire

I reviewed Steven Pinker’s new book in the December 19 paper issue of National Review; and I gave a passing mention to Daniel Kahneman’s new book in my November Diary on NRO. Pinker and Kahneman are two of the biggest names in the science of human nature.

They are also the two people named as having set up this year’s question to a big raft of human-nature-ologists on the website Edge.org. The question is: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

Here is the entire list of contributors, each one offering an answer to the question. The list includes just about every big name you could think of in the human sciences.

Pinker’s response to his own question is: “Positive-Sum Games.” From which:

Once people are thrown together in an interaction, their choices don’t determine whether they are in a zero- or nonzero-sum game; the game is a part of the world they live in. But people, by neglecting some of the options on the table, may perceive that they are in a zero-sum game when in fact they are in a nonzero-sum game. Moreover, they can change the world to make their interaction nonzero-sum. For these reasons, when people become consciously aware of the game-theoretic structure of their interaction (that is, whether it is positive-, negative-, or zero-sum), they can make choices that bring them valuable outcomes — like safety, harmony, and prosperity — without their having to become more virtuous, noble, or pure.

Some examples. Squabbling colleagues or relatives agree to swallow their pride, take their losses, or lump it to enjoy the resulting comity rather than absorbing the costs of continuous bickering in hopes of prevailing in a battle of wills. Two parties in a negotiation split the difference in their initial bargaining positions to “get to yes” …

Read the whole thing here. Then check out some of the other contributors. Here is Kahneman’s answer.

There is an inevitable proportion of hot air among the responses, but overall the quality is good. Greg Cochran is as acerbic as ever; Lord Rees is as Olympian as ever; Geoffrey Miller as disconcerting as ever (“we are all more or less crazy in many ways”); and Thomas Metzinger has another go at explaining to you why you don’t exist. Great stuff, at any rate if you agree with the subject of the anecdote at 2m05s here.