Robert Wright asks us to reflect on whether we notice a professional rival’s flaws more readily than we notice those of an ally. In presenting the scenario he characterizes the relationship with the rival as zero-sum and that with the ally as non-zero-sum.
Various psychological mechanisms make us particularly receptive to evidence of blemishes in a rival’s record and of virtue in the record of an ally. I may well ascribe unflattering motivations to a professional rival more readily than to a colleague who shares my own academic tastes, interests, and methodological orientation. But do the biases in question stem solely from cognitive distortions? There are also social processes at work, and in practice they may be relatively more significant.
The books and articles that I read will tend to praise the writings of my ally and to criticize those of my rival. Likewise, the people who give talks at seminars that I organize, or choose to attend, are more likely to think highly of my ally’s works than of my rival’s writings. For these reasons, information favorable to my ally is relatively more available to me. The same is true of information about my rival’s failures and dark motivations.
The bias that Wright mentions is undoubtedly pervasive. My point here is that it has an important social component that may work independently of the psychological mechanisms in question.
Am I likely to see the relationship with my rival as a zero-sum contest? Not necessarily. I might see it as a negative-sum struggle involving much wasted energy on both sides. Alternatively, I might view the relationship as a positive-sum contest that makes each of us think harder and write better in anticipation of possible criticisms from the other side. Wright’s scenario appears realistic, then, only in a probabilistic sense: a rivalry is more likely than a cooperative relationship to appear zero-sum.