The psychology of dynamic duos: Five traits shared by successful, creative pairs.

The Four Traits Shared by Creative Pairs, From Lennon and McCartney to Matt and Trey

The Four Traits Shared by Creative Pairs, From Lennon and McCartney to Matt and Trey

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Oct. 9 2014 10:37 AM

Folie à Deux

A secret language, telepathy, and other things shared between dynamic duos.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images, Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters, Hector Amezcua/Pool/Reuters, and Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images.
Bill Gates & Steve Ballmer, Matt Stone & Trey Parker, and Mark Zuckerberg & Sheryl Sandberg.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images, Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters, Hector Amezcua/Pool/Reuters, and Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images.

Excerpted from Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Creation in Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Out now from Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The first sparks of creative pairs make for great stories: John Lennon and Paul McCartney “circling each other like cats” (as a member of John’s band put it) or Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg talking at a Christmas party for an hour without leaving the vestibule.

The temptation is to offer these vignettes, pause dramatically, and say, “The rest was history.”

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But what’s more striking about exceptional pairs is not any one moment of electricity but how they can come to jointly occupy a house powered by it. Over time, two people develop “couple identity” and a meshing of cognitive functions that some scientists even consider a shared mind. Here are four key elements of this process, which can illuminate not only creative bonds but the wonder of social, psychological—even neurological—interconnection.

I. Secession

It starts small, with rituals that bring people into a shared rhythm. A regular meeting time is one obvious, common thing. James Watson and Francis Crick, who co-discovered DNA, had lunch most days at a pub (The Eagle) in Cambridge, England. The writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis set aside Mondays to talk about their work over lunch at a pub (The Eagle and Child) in Oxford.

As pairs move toward each other, they may leave the rest of the world behind. “Every real friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion,” C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves. In the feverish six-year collaboration between Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso that led to Cubism, both artists signed paintings only on the back; only they would know who did what. “Things were said with Picasso during those years,” Braque said, “that no one will ever say again, things that no one could ever say any more, that no one could ever understand.”

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Or consider Neal Brennan and Dave Chappelle, co-creators of Chappelle’s Show. They knew that people would be looking to pick apart the partnership—either exaggerating Brennan as the handler for a tempestuous performer or exaggerating Chappelle’s comic genius. Brennan was once dismissed as “Dave Chappelle’s typist” but was equally uncomfortable with undue credit at the other extreme, as when an agent collared him at a party and called Brennan, within earshot of Chappelle, “the genius behind the guy.”

“He was trying to make small talk,” Brennan told me, “but it’s ridiculous, and it’s racist. I had people come up to me and whisper, ‘Seriously, how much of that script did you write?’ Like, you know, ‘Between two good white men, explain to me.’”

His reaction to these people, Brennan said, was: “‘Yo, man. Everybody just get the fuck out. We’ve got it. Everyone just stay the fuck away.’ In a vacuum, this shit works. The vacuum being mostly me and him, and then Bijan [Shams, the show’s editor]. But really, ultimately, me and Dave are the only guys who know how the show works and the only guys who know who did what. We would go in a room together and we would come out with sketches.”

One of the tropes I heard over and over about creative pairs is that no one can “get between them.” “You see people try to get between them,” Scott Rudin said of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. “They shut it down so fast.” When I mentioned this to the New York Times writer David Carr, he said it was critical. “The ability to form partnerships that have a degree of hermeticism,” he said, “that’s where the great work occurs.”

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II. Folie à Deux

Carr went on to explain what happens in that sealed chamber. “When you’re doing something that’s naughty or against the grain,” he told me, “you need to have someone you can turn to you and say: ‘Am I crazy?’ And they say, ‘Yes and do it anyway.’ ”

It’s telling how often the image of insanity shows up in creative pairs; two people making their own reality resembles what psychiatrists call a folie à deux, “a madness shared by two.” “When I think back on the show,” Jerry Seinfeld said in a conversation with his Seinfeld co-creator, Larry David, “you would pitch me some premise, some insane, absurd thing. And I would just go, ‘OK.’ ”

“It was something I won’t even tell another soul,” David said.

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“And now we’re gonna do it on TV,” Seinfeld said.

Original creations run contrary to the pressure of the common. This is not conformity to be snickered at; it’s a biological imperative to be respected. In prehistoric times, if you got thrown out of the pack, you’d die. But creative pairs make their own pack, and trust their place in it, and therefore take far greater risks than those without a true society of their own. “Standing next to Clarence [Clemons] ... you felt like no matter what the day or the night brought, nothing was going to touch you,” Bruce Springsteen said. Jean-Paul Sartre told Simone de Beauvoir: “I had one special reader and that was you. When you said to me, ‘I agree; it’s all right’ then it was all right. I published the book and I didn’t give a damn for the critics.”

Many ostensible lone geniuses have a colleague, friend, or spouse who is the final arbiter for their work. Overt pairs only help make explicit what happens so often behind the scenes, which is nothing less than the definition of what’s worthwhile. These definitions must happen outside the mainstream, which can only judge work by mainstream standards. “When you have a body of work that’s as complicated and transgressive as what Matt and Trey do,” Carr told me, “the answer to whether something is a good idea or not is very complicated. Many of the things that they’ve done on the surface seem like manifestly terrible ideas: ‘Let’s do a musical about Mormons.’ ‘Let’s do a play where the chorus is “Fuck God.” ’ If Trey had asked me about that stuff, I would have said, ‘That’s a dumb idea.’ He asked Matt instead.”

III. Private Language

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Pairs often develop a private language. Tom Hanks described the communication between director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer as “some gestalt Vulcan.” Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, the co-founders of Sony, “would sit there talking to each other,” Morita’s son Hideo said, “and we would listen but we had no idea what they were saying. ... It was gibberish to us, but they were understanding each other, and interrupting them for any reason was forbidden.”

Private language may seem wondrous, but it emerges organically from constant exchange. Intimate pairs talk fluidly and naturally, having let go of what psychologists call “self-monitoring”—the process of watching impulses and protean thoughts, censoring some, allowing others to pass. “Like most people, I am somewhat cautious about exposing tentative thoughts to others,” the psychologist Daniel Kahneman said. But after a while with Amos Tversky, with whom he created behavioral economics, “this caution was completely absent.”

“You just get so high-bandwidth,” Bill Gates said about talking to Steve Ballmer, his longtime deputy (and eventual successor) at Microsoft. “Steve and I would just be going from talking to meeting to talking to meeting, and then I’d stay up late at night, and write him five emails. He’d get up early in the morning and maybe not necessarily respond to them, but start thinking about them. And the minute I see him, he’s [at the office whiteboard] saying we could move this guy over here and do this thing here.” Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg used that same term—high-bandwidth—to describe his exchanges with his COO Sheryl Sandberg.         

I asked Neal Brennan if he and Dave Chappelle had a private language. “Oh yeah,” he said. He got out his cellphone and looked at a recent text from Chappelle.

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“He just texted me at 12:50 in the afternoon,” Brennan said, “ ‘Tata-tow!’ And I texted back, ‘Rickety-crickety-clack-clow!’ ” He laughed. “I have no idea what that means.”

Then he changed his mind. “Like I know just what he means.”

“What does he mean?” I asked.

“You know what it is? When we wrote Half Baked”— a feature film that preceded Chappelle’s Show—“we went out and we got a limo. When we turned the draft in and everybody liked it, we rented a limo and did mushrooms and went to the beach, and a buddy of ours also did mushrooms with us, and he kept going, ‘Clow!’ He just was like freaking out, and he just kept going, ‘Clow!’ This guy resented us for writing Half Baked together and not including him, and it was me, Dave, and this other guy, and he kept going, ‘Fuck everybody on the beach!’ And it was me and Dave. We were the only two people there. And, ‘Clow!’ ”

Brennan laughed again.

“So by him writing ‘Ta-ta-tow!,’ that’s him basically saying, ‘Show business is insane.’ It’s almost like a birdcall, of like, ‘Ta-ta-tow!’ And then I write back, ‘Rickety-crickety-clack-clow!’ Which is nonsense, and it’s also this euphoric, drug-addled way of talking about crazy people, because this guy we used to work with would use the term rickety-crickety and he was pretty far out.”

I tried to interpret: “So he’s basically saying, ‘Show business is crazy,’ and you’re saying, ‘Yeah, man,’ but in a way no one else could understand?” Brennan said I’d pretty much got it. But I felt like a translator on deadline. I had arrived at a serviceable interpretation, but I knew full well that the essence of the original eluded me.

Psychologists used to think that people imitated each other in a deliberate attempt to be liked, but mimicry is far more pervasive than this—and largely nonconscious. Intimate partners share physical postures and breathing patterns too. They use the same muscles so often, the psychologist Robert Zajonc and colleagues found in a study of spouses, that they even come to look alike. (Warren Buffett has said that he and business partner Charlie Munger are “Siamese twins, practically.”)

Physical convergence comes along with what psychologists call a “shared coordinative structure.” Just as physical qualities are “highly communicable,” write Molly Ireland and James Pennebaker, so are behaviors, affective states, and beliefs.

Powers of Two by Joshua Wolf Shenk

One manifestation of this alignment is in wordless communication that observers commonly describe as “telepathic.” When the writer David Zax visited The Daily Show to profile Steve Bodow, Jon Stewart’s head writer (and now the show’s executive producer), Zax could understand only a small fraction of their exchanges, given the dominance of “workplace argot and quasi-telepathy.” “If you work with Jon for any length of time, you learn to interpret the shorthand,” Bodow said. For example, Stewart might say: “Cut the thing and bring the thing around and do the thing.” “ ‘Cut the thing’: You know what thing needs to be cut,” Bodow explained. “ ‘Bring the thing around’: There’s a thing that works, but it needs to move up in order to set up the ‘do the thing’ thing, which is probably the ‘blow,’ the big joke at the end. It takes time and repetition and patience and frustration, and suddenly you know how to bring the thing around and do the thing.”

I’ve interviewed many pairs and seen a variety of styles. Some talk over each other wildly, like seals flopping together on a pier, and some behave with an almost severe respect, like two monks side by side. (Watch a video of Merce Cunningham and John Cage for an illustration.) But regardless of a pair’s style, I usually came away feeling like I had just met two people who were, while inimitable and distinct, also a single organism.

IV. Transactive Memory

Language is the visible surface of psychological union—but it’s also the bedrock of cognition. The simplest words can reflect the most profound shifts. Perhaps the strongest lexical indication of union is we. The closer two people are, the more they will shed singular pronouns in favor of the plural. It’s not a conscious choice, James Pennebaker argues. It’s simply the way couples begin to think.

Indeed, close couples will actually start to process knowledge in tandem, according to the psychologist Daniel Wegner; he called this “transactive memory.” “Nobody remembers everything,” Wegner wrote. “Instead, each of us in a couple or group remembers some things personally—and then can remember much more by knowing who else might know what we don’t.” This age-old process has recently come to new prominence because some scientists believe that the hive mind accessed via Google search is actually an extension of it, that the way we draw on Space Age gadgets is much the way we’ve drawn on other people since the Stone Age. One experiment showed that couples of long standing did better retrieving past experiences together than separately. They engaged in “cross-cuing,” Clive Thompson explains, “tossing clues back and forth until they triggered each other,” as in this couple telling the story of their honeymoon 40 years before.

F: And we went to two shows, can you remember what they were called?
M: We did. One was a musical, or were they both? I don’t ... know ...  one ...
F: John Hanson was in it.
M: Desert Song.
F: Desert Song, that’s it ...

“They were,” writes Thompson, “in a sense, Googling each other.”

Creative pairs often say that they don’t remember who did what. But do they forget distinct contributions or stop coding memories that way in the first place? The discovery of mirror neurons in primates suggests that similar neurological activity is generated whether one is performing a given action or watching it. Though the implications of this one mechanism are hotly debated, the broader field of social cognition—looking at the mental operations involved in processing social stimuli—is rapidly growing in psychology and neuroscience. We don’t know precisely how our minds link up with others. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that these linkages account for much of what’s considered “the mind” in the first place. Call it what you like—maybe intersubjectivity, maybe cognitive interdependence—but on some level, thinking (and, therefore, being) is social.

Thus the new field of social neuroscience. According to the psychologist John Cacioppo, who coined the term with his colleague Gary Berntson, psychic and physiological boundedness so characterize human life that the “self” can be understood only as a relational phenomenon. If Cacioppo’s theory is borne out, the confluence of creative pairs will come to be seen not as an anomaly but as an unusually clear articulation of the kind of symbiosis that affects all of us all the time.

“Where does it all lead?” Patti Smith wrote in Just Kids, her memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. “What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”

Excerpted from Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Creation in Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Out now from Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.