Opinion

The Nobel Prize-Winning Professor Who Liked to Collaborate With His Adversaries

Our all-American belief that money really does buy happiness is roughly correct for about 85 percent of us. We know this thanks to the latest and perhaps final work of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner who insisted on the value of working with those with whom we disagree.

Professor Kahneman, who died last week at the age of 90, is best known for his pathbreaking explorations of human judgment and decision-making, and of how people deviate from perfect rationality. He should also be remembered for a living and working philosophy that has never been more relevant: his enthusiasm for collaborating with his intellectual adversaries. This enthusiasm was deeply personal. He experienced real joy working with others to discover the truth, even if he learned that he was wrong (something that often delighted him).

Back to that finding, published last year, that for a strong majority of us, more is better when it comes to money. In 2010, Professor Kahneman and the Princeton economist Angus Deaton (also a Nobel Prize winner) published a highly influential essay that found that on average higher-income groups show higher levels of happiness — but only to a point. Beyond a threshold at or below $90,000, Professor Kahneman and Professor Deaton found, there is no further progress in average happiness as income increases.

Eleven years later, Matthew Killingsworth, a senior fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, found exactly the opposite: People with higher income reported higher levels of average happiness. Period. The more money people have, the happier they are likely to be.

What gives? You could imagine some furious exchange in which Professor Kahneman and Professor Deaton made sharp objections to Dr. Killingsworth’s paper, to which Dr. Killingsworth answered equally sharply, leaving readers confused and exhausted.

Professor Kahneman saw such a dynamic as “angry science,” which he described as a “nasty world of critiques, replies and rejoinders,” and “as a contest, where the aim is to embarrass.” As Professor Kahneman put it, those who live in that nasty world offer “a summary caricature of the target position, refute the weakest argument in that caricature, and declare the total destruction of the adversary’s position.” In his account, angry science is “a demeaning experience.” That dynamic might sound familiar, particularly in our politics.

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