Arnold Kling


Nassim Taleb and the Disagreeables

If I were to describe the perfect virtuous act, it would be to take an uncomfortable position, one penalized by the common discourse.
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game, p. 188

Nassim Taleb’s latest book heaps praise on the trait that personality psychologists call low agreeableness. My essay is a short meditation on the trait of disagreeableness and how it relates to my own life. I am pretty far out on the disagreeable end of the spectrum myself, but Taleb makes me look like a goody two-shoes.

(This is not a full review of Skin in the Game. I plan to get around to that after I have read it carefully a second time.)

Agreeableness is one of the elements in what is known as the five-factor model of personality. A quick web search turned up a description from something called the Positive Psychology Program.

People on the low end of the agreeableness spectrum . . . tend to be callous, blunt, rude, ill-tempered, antagonistic, and sarcastic.

I doubt that anyone reading Skin in the Game would question that Taleb displays these traits. His tone has its charms for those of us who share his disagreeableness to some degree. My guess is that it puts other people off.

We disagreeables tend to lean libertarian. Indeed, a large study found that, when compared to liberals and conservatives,

Libertarians score the lowest of the three groups on empathizing, and highest of the three groups on systemizing. . . On this and other measures, libertarians consistently come out as the most cerebral, most rational, and least emotional.
. . .They score lowest of the three groups on many traits related to sociability, including extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

Agreeables follow orthodoxy. We disagreeables do not. Eric Weinstein, another disagreeable, thinks that we would see more scientific progress if we gave (expletive) money to disagreeable scientists and left them alone. Taleb makes liberal use of the expression (expletive) money, but his idea for science is different. He thinks that professional scientists who use other people’s money have no skin in the game. He would prefer to see people from other professions do research in their spare time. But although their solutions may differ, Taleb and Weinstein share the disagreeable view that mainstream science is too risk-averse and conformist.

Agreeables are good at climbing hierarchies, such as the corporate ladder. Disagreeables are more likely to become entrepreneurs.

I hardly advanced in two hierarchical organizations, the Federal Reserve Board and Freddie Mac. If you count academia as another hierarchy where I hoped for achievement, then that makes three unsuccessful attempts. Then, in 1994, I launched my own business, and that worked out better. Once I had skin in the game, I took on tasks, like cultivating contacts and making sales pitches, that I never would have tried otherwise.

Agreeables tend to take people’s words at face value. Disagreeables do not. One of Taleb’s themes is that people’s words are not trustworthy unless they are backed by skin-in-the-game action. He writes,

The doer wins by doing, not convincing. Entire fields (say economics and other social sciences) become themselves charlatanic because of the absence of skin in the game connecting them back to earth

Perhaps Taleb would agree with my idea to require internships for economists. I believe that my own experience, both in large organizations and in my own business, helped shape my views.

A recent powerful statement of the disagreeable outlook on hypocrisy is The Elephant in the Brain, by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. In their book, they look at the strategic motivations for human behavior, especially how we present ourselves to others. Hanson is known for advocating prediction markets, which would turn forecasting into a field in which participants have skin in the game.

Another recent book, The Case Against Education, could only have been written by a disagreeable. Author Bryan Caplan is fond of challenging people to bet on their opinions. Implicitly, he believes in skin in the game.

Caplan thinks that people only get degrees in order to “signal” to employers that they have desirable personality characteristics. For his part, Taleb writes,

Someone who has been employed for a while is giving you strong evidence of submission. . .going through years depriving himself of his personal freedom for nine hours every day. . .He is an obedient, housebroken dog.

Combining Taleb and Caplan into a single disagreeable point of view, one might say that employers take the graduates of obedience school.

Taleb writes,

You can define a free person precisely as someone whose fate is not centrally or directly dependent on peer assessment.

Agreeables play games where judges award points to determine the winner. Disagreeables play games where you win by scoring goals.

Agreeables are sorry that Hillary Clinton lost. Disagreeables are not. Taleb refers to her as “Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison.” I am not sure what that means, but it is safe to assume that it is not a compliment. In any case, disagreeables take a negative view of politics as a vocation.

Agreeables believe in the propriety of existing institutions and in their personal status within those institutions. Disagreeables expect to see existing institutions fail and to see the phoniness of the high-status individuals exposed.

But my guess is that society needs to include a mix of both agreeables and disagreeables. It appears that we have had such a mix for a long time, and Taleb would be the first to say that whatever has survived a long time has demonstrated fitness.

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