Creative pairs

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe (photo by Norman Seeff)

Hugo Mercier and I have of late been developing the idea that reasoning, typically seen as an activity of the individual thinker, is in fact a social activity aimed at exercising some control on the flow of communicated information by arguing in order to convince others and by examining others' arguments in order to be convinced only when appropriate (see here). With such ideas in mind, I was struck by the opening paragraphs of a the first of a series of essays by Joshua Wolf Shenk, (the author of Lincoln's Melancholy and a variety of essays in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Nation, Mother Jones, or the Atlantic Monthly) on "Creative pairs" published at Slate:

"What makes creative relationships work? How do two people—who may be perfectly capable and talented on their own—explode into innovation, discovery, and brilliance when working together? These may seem to be obvious questions. Collaboration yields so much of what is novel, useful, and beautiful that it's natural to try to understand it. Yet looking at achievement through relationships is a new, and even radical, idea. For hundreds of years, science and culture have focused on the self. We talk of self-expression, self-realization. Popular culture celebrates the hero. Schools test intelligence and learning through solo exams. Biographies shape our view of history.

This pervasive belief in individualism can be traced to the idea most forcefully articulated by René Descartes. "Each self inhabits its own subjective realm," he declared, "and its mental life has an integrity prior to and independent of its interaction with other people." …"



This first essay, and two further essays on Paul McCartney and John Lennon are a good read, but a bit light on theory. To get a better sense of the relevance of the undertaking to a culture and cognition perspective, read Shenk's interview by Steve Siberman at the excellent Neurotribes blog. From the interview:



"Joshua Wolf Shenk: The new research is growing organically out of the culture of the Web. Psychologist John Cacioppo and his colleague Gary Berntson coined the term "social neuroscience" in 1992. At first, people thought Cacioppo was nuts; he couldn't find a way to get through to them. Then the Internet came into our lives, and suddenly he had an effective metaphor for the ways we are influenced, motivated, and changed by our webs of relations. Social networks like Facebook have opened our minds to think about who we are and what we do in new ways.

There's another, much more mundane piece of technology that played a pivotal role in this research: videotape. Before the 1970s, social researchers could film interactions, but it was cumbersome and costly. When it became cheap and easy to capture social exchanges on camera — and slow them down to watch them frame-by-frame — videotape proved a boon to relationship studies. Some of the early pioneering work looked at the most foundational bond at all: the bond between mother and child. It's obvious that mothers are affected by their infants and vice versa, but the research showed that the influence isn't sequential, but simultaneous. It's not that the baby smiles, the mother smiles back, and the baby smiles wider. Even before a baby's smile becomes visible, the mother is already reacting, her own smile is already forming. There's a primitive exchange that goes down to a neurological level. This lasts into adulthood. So there's an experimental foundation now to demonstrate how our cognitive structures morph when we're very close with other people, so that our ideas of "self" literally expand to include another person.

Emotions themselves, which we think of ourselves and others as "having" ("I am angry; he looks sad") are actually "peopled" from the start. To me, this is the most profound aspect of the research — that we're so deeply intertwined with other people, our very concept of self needs revision. Cacioppo says we're ready for a Copernican revolution in psychology and neuroscience, and I think he's right.

Silberman: Most great accomplishments are the product of creative alliances, but press accounts usually favor the Great Man (and more rarely, the Great Woman) scenario, in part because people like to emulate — or at least read about — inspiring leaders. How can science writers get beyond clichéed narratives of the lone visionary?

Shenk: It's a problem that ranges across disciplines, but there's a peculiar bias in the academy that affects science disproportionately. I recently asked the chair of Harvard's history of science department, Anne Harrington, for her thoughts on creative pairs, and she told me that I could analyze virtually any scientific accomplishment and find collaboration behind it. At the same time, tenure committees insist on looking at the distinct, original contribution of individual scientists, which provokes a farcical fictional exercise in which people have to try to extract themselves from their tangled webs of collaboration. No matter how collaborative an academic paper is, there can only be one author in that lead spot. Long-time collaborators often trade off, which is fine as a workaround, but speaks to a myopia in institutional assessment.

… The bottom line here is that we're social animals, everything we do is rooted in social exchange on some level, and our big ideas — even when we experience them alone, in a flash — are always generated by complex exchanges.

It won't be easy to adopt this new way of thinking, because we're drawn to the Great Man story on a very fundamental level. I'd love to hear more about this from the perspective of evolutionary biology — the way our brains evolved to look out for the alpha male or female, the pack leader, the headman of a tribe."

From an anthropological point of view, I would look at collective creativity not just, and not even primarily, in relationship to "headman" and other "tribal" leaders, but rather among more marginal members of a group who may, from pairs or small coalitions, explore alternatives to the dominant forms of achievement to which they may have limited access.

(Shenk has also launched a Facebook group to solicit input from the network about creative pairs.)


  • comment-avatar
    Maurice Bloch 22 September 2010 (17:43)

    In many ways what Dan is saying is what most of mankind has been saying for 99% of its existence. The individualist ideology which has grown strongly in the last two thousand years or so and which has become, if not dominant, a major current in western thought since the reformation is a historical oddity that requires special explanation. It is particularly embedded and therefore invisible in the USA and northern Europe, probably because of the protestant tradition. Stressing its oddity has been the main theme of writers such as Durkheim and Weber and has probably never been better analysed than in the work of Louis Dumont. Its effect on the scientific method has also been explored. It’s dominance in psychology and neuroscience has been reinforced by the experimental methods of the psychology lab and the fMRI machines within which it is very difficult to squeeze in more than one person at a time. This tradition, with its emphasis on statistical significance and reprocutability, presents a very real methodological problem which Hugo and Dan begin to approach a little but which needs further development. As far as I can see, if one wants to study joint creativity and reasoning there is no alternative to good old long term anthropological field work. Of course I am biased since I have spent most of my life doing this but it would be useful to discuss if there are other alternatives.

  • comment-avatar
    Guillaume Dezecache 23 September 2010 (12:29)

    There might be some good alternatives to be found in brain recording techniques. For sure, fMRI machines are not built to receive two people at the same time. Nevertheless, some researchers have tried to do so (e.g., Van Andel and his colleagues who recorded a very special way of being dyadly creative : Unfortunately, this is MRI and not fMRI, it’s not about brain activity…). Moreover, Sebanz and her team ( have recorded two people at the same time when they were performing a joint action (with electroencephalography). Then, I don’t think that this is technically impossible. Nonetheless, one big problem remains with these techniques: you cannot make people be spontaneous (and therefore, creative) by compelling them to enter your machine… (as Maurice said, a creative moment is by definition not reproducible).