Sunday, May 26, 2019

Empathy tips from Kahneman’s “Adversarial collaboration”

(Reading time: 5 minutes)

Empathy is one of the core elements of Design Thinking. It is easier to empathize while dealing with people we care about. However, things get more difficult when we are dealing with people whom we don’t like or who hold opposite views. It could be a family member or a colleague with whom we get into an argument regularly. It could also be a friend on the social network who holds exactly opposite religious or political beliefs than yours. How do you empathize with people holding exactly opposite views? I feel Kahneman’s idea of “adversarial collaboration” gives us a few clues even though he himself feels that this idea may not even survive. What is this idea of “adversarial collaboration” that Kahneman has proposed? Why does he feel it may not survive? And how could it help us build empathy muscle? This is what I would like to explore in this article.

“I have always hated quarrelling,” says Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman in this 2-minute video titled “Adversarial Collaboration”. “I have always despised scientific controversies,” he adds, “Because they become very personal and people very quickly get into a point-scoring mode where the truth is unimportant. That has struck me as quite destructive.” For those who genuinely seek the truth, he has proposed “adversarial collaboration”. And he admits, “It is not widely used and I am not sure that this idea would survive.”

Over several decades, Kahneman studied cognitive biases and concluded that human intuition is biased and not trustworthy. Gary Klein, on the other hand, studied expert intuition from people such as chess masters and firefighters and concluded that it is a marvel. Kahneman and Klein decided to work together to answer the question: In what context is expert intuition trustworthy and in what context it is not trustworthy. This collaboration lasted for 6-7 years. At the end, they published a joint article titled, “Conditions for intuitive expertise: A failure to disagree”. In short, they had found common ground.

What is my biggest takeaway from “adversarial collaboration”? It is the importance of context curiosity. The key hypothesis here is that every view is meaningful in some context. A drug addict, a terrorist, a money launderer – everybody carries a world-view which is meaningful in some context. In the extreme case, that context is limited to only one person. Understanding that context is empathizing. Hence, context curiosity forms an important element of empathy.

Understanding context would require a willingness to listen with openness. Listening to people who hold views opposite of yours is not easy. And hence perhaps Kahneman feels this idea of “adversarial collaboration” may not have takers. Listening with openness implies a willingness to say, “I could be wrong”. That’s harder than one can imagine. In Kahneman’s words, “People who think poorly of your work and your ideas, get on your nerves. And you have to overcome that.”

In a world where the polarization of views is increasing day by day, it is easy to encounter people who hold views exactly opposite of yours. I feel that is an excellent opportunity to build your empathy muscle. Are you willing to listen with openness? Alternately, are you willing to say, “Let me find out what is the context from which this view is coming from”? Please try it out and see for yourself.

Image source: YouTube video “Daniel Kahneman: Adversarial collaboration

Kahneman's video “Adversarial collaboration”: (duration: 1:52)

Another video: Daniel Kahneman: Adversarial collaboration (duration: 2:14)

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