You and your partner have to decide on a new venture. Maybe you and your sweetie are deciding on a movie, you and your co-author are deciding on which new idea to develop, or you and your colleague are deciding which new Assistant Professor to hire.

Deliberation consists of proposals and reactions. When you pitch your idea you naturally become attached to it. Its your idea, your creation. Your feelings are going to be hurt if your partner doesn’t like it.

Maybe you really are a dispassionate common interest maximizer, but there’s no way for your partner to know that for sure. You try to say “give me your honest opinion, I promise I have thick skin, you won’t hurt my feelings.” But you would say that even if it’s a little white lie.

The important thing is that no matter how sensitive you actually are, your partner believes that there is a chance your feelings will be hurt if she shoots down your idea. And she might even worry that you would respond by feeling resentful towards her. All of this makes her reluctant to give her honest opinion about your idea. The net result is that some inferior projects might get adopted because concern for hurt feelings gets in the way of honest information exchange.

Unless you design the mechanism to work around that friction. The basic problem is that when you pitch your idea it becomes common knowledge that you are attached to it. From that moment forward it is common knowledge that any opinion expressed about the idea has the chance of causing hurt feelings.

So a better mechanism would change the timing to remove that feature. You and your partner first announce to one another which options are unacceptable to you. Now all of the rejections have been made before knowing which ones you are attached to. Only then do you choose your proposal from the acceptable set.

If your favorite idea has been rejected then for sure you are disappointed. But your feelings are not hurt because it is common knowledge that her rejection is completely independent of your attachment. And for exactly that reason she is perfectly comfortable being honest about which options are unacceptable.

This is going to work better for movies, and new Assistant Professors than it is for research ideas. Because we know in advance the universe of all movies and job market candidates.

Research ideas and other creative ventures are different because there is no way to enumerate all of the possibilities beforehand and reject the unacceptable ones. Indeed the real value of a collaborative relationship is that the partners are bringing to the table brand new previously unconceived-of ideas. This makes for a far more delicate relationship.

We can thus classify relationships according to whether they are movie-like or idea-like, and we would expect that the first category are easier to sustain with second-best mechanisms whereas the second require real trust and honesty.

(inspired by a conversation with +Emil Temnyalov and Jorge Lemus)

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