Even When Contrarians Win, They Lose

Imagine two people at a fork in the road of ideas, choosing between a standard and a contrarian view on some subject.  One takes a standard view, and gains a bit more favor with the "powers that be."  This helps him gain the right sort of contacts and opportunities to move up in the world.  Eventually he has somewhat more prestigious publications, affiliations, contacts, experience, and so on.   

At the fork in the road, the other person embraces a contrarian view.  This makes him a bit more suspect, and all else equal this costs him somewhat in terms of getting good contacts and opportunities.  Of course all else need not be equal.  He may still do well if he is very capable.  And his contrarian views may cost him little if he has few of them, if they are not important to his specialty, if he devotes little attention to them, or if he only acquires them late in his career.  (Also, if his contrarian view has long had a following, there may be contrarian "powers that be" to help him.) 

Imagine someone who ignores these low cost options, and starts early in his career to devote a lot of energy to a contrarian view, even without much support, thinking this will give him the best chance to still be around when the the world sees the light.  What if he wins this bet, and in fact the world does move toward his view, after a decade or three? 

As this once-contrarian view starts to become acceptable to "powers that be", the cautious person, who took the standard fork in the road, may consider jumping into this newly acceptable area.  He may start to write papers and apply for resources, such as jobs, funding, publications, and students.  And some ambitious "powers that be" who give out resources may also decide to try get into this new area, in part to gain the prestige that comes from being the first to support a new trend. 

At this point such ambitious "powers that be" may have to choose between these two people, who once chose differing forks in the road.  The contrarian will have established some priority with these once-contrarian ideas, such as being the first to publish on or actively pursue related ideas.  And he will be somewhat more familiar with those ideas, having spent years on them.   

But the cautious person will be more familiar with standard topics and methods, and so be in a better position to communicate this new area to a standard audience, and to integrate it in with other standard areas.  More important to the "powers that be" hoping to establish this new area, this standard person will bring more prestige and resources to this new area. 

If the standard guy wins the first few such contests, his advantage can quickly snowball into an overwhelming one.  People will prefer to cite his publications as they will be in more prestigious journals, even if they were not quite as creative.  Reporters will prefer to quote him, students will prefer to study under him, firms will prefer to hire him as a consultant, and journals will prefer to publish him, as he will be affiliated with more prestigious institutions.  And of course the contrarian may have a worse reputation as a "team player." 

Imagine there are different tools or methods one can use to approach this area, and there are different topics within this area on which one could choose to focus.  If the cautious person chooses different methods and topics from those the contrarian chose, those will be seen as the more important methods and topics.  And this difference will make it easier to paint this conservative as the real innovator – after all it was he who pioneered the important methods and topics.  Maybe the other guy just got lucky; broken clocks are right twice a day and all that. 

This is not just a plausible story – I have personally known people where similar stories have played out, and have read about others.  It has happened to varying degrees with Ted Nelson, Eric Drexler, Douglas Engelbart, Doug Lenat, David Deutsch, Alfred Russel Wallace, Hugh Everett, and, yes, me. 

If it is so hard to succeed as a contrarian, why do we hear so many stories of successful contrarians?  Well celebrated contrarians are usually not the real contrarians.  Perhaps their coalition was a bit on the outside and won a battle over the then-ruling coalition.  But they had to be pretty powerful to do this.  Such winners like to paint themselves as initially weak, to make their triumph seem all the more impressive.   I’ll admit I wouldn’t have the "contrarian" recognition I do if most of my career hadn’t been pretty standard.

The lessons to draw here depends on whether you want credit or influence.  If you want credit as an innovator then you should actually be pretty conservative.  Become prestigious in a conservative way, until late in your career.  Reject non-standard views but not explicitly; just ignore them so your quotes won’t bite you later.  When the time is right, look around for ripe once-contrarian ideas and take one.  Change the name and vary the methods and topics, grab the first few high profile resources, and trash the original contrarians as weirdos. 

If you instead want influence, then go ahead and be contrarian early in your career.  You are still well advised to be radical in a conservative way, but know that influence is easier than it seems, even if credit is harder that it seems.  Most important, know that the fact that few support your contrarian view says less than it might seem about how reasonable is your view.  Most people prefer credit to influence, and credit-seekers are better off rejecting a non-standard view now and grabbing it later, should it succeed. 

Of course if we could change incentives in our world of ideas to better reward contrarians who turned out to be right, then the fact that few others wanted to take up your contrarian view would be a much more damning criticism of your view.

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  • There is some truth to the old saying that it is better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally

  • Great post for it’s transparency, but I think these are interesting topics to examine empirically (and that doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to do, in my opinion). Beyond a more narrow variety of egoism, I think focus on optimizing incentives is key. It seems to me some people have a comparative advantage in publicly performing contrarianism (probably, for example, you) and some people have a comparative advantage in publicly performing more conventional (probably, for example me, in my non-anonymous self). I suspect it’s in our interest to minimize the economic waste involved in these various performances, and to optimize implementation of the best ideas to improve overall wealth, solve aging, and minimize existential risk. Otherwise the kabuki of rival, competing, individuals, all trying to present themselves as the “standard” or “standard contrarian” and their opponents as the non-team playing contrarians could be a game of chicken that results in death for all of us.

  • As a pretty well-established contrarian myself (high school dropout… *almost* testified against Microsoft…), your essay rings mostly true, but you haven’t mentioned that contrarians may be playing a completely different game than the conventionalists. Therefore “win” and “lose” may not have meaning. For instance, I am motivated by the respect I receive from the people whom *I* respect, and from my desired self-image as a man willing to suffer in the service of insight and honesty. My father, in particular, would probably disown me if I ever accepted a degree from an institution of any kind, since he rejects the notion that institutions should take credit for the learning people do.

    I have made a place for myself in my little industry of software testing, but I realize that I give up prosperity of a certain kind by openly displaying my contempt for certain “leaders” of the field. However this wins me a sort of prosperity associated with the interesting and smart people I get to work with, instead of working with people whom I have to pretend to respect.

    To paraphrase Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your economic model of rational behavior.”

  • michael vassar

    I found this post much more enlightening and clarifying than anything I had read for a while.
    However, a few concerns…
    1) how much evidence do we have that it’s easy to be influential as a contrarian. Counter-examples leap so much more readily to mind than examples on this point.
    2) a quibble, but it seems to me that in AI Douglas Lenat *is* the establishment, Engelbart eventually received a great deal of mainstream recognition, and in so far as he disagreed with Darwin Wallace was wrong.

  • Arnold, I had never heard that saying. Perhaps if I had …

    Hopefully, to me this seems hard to examine empirically; what exogenous event would push people to be more or less contrarian?

    Bach, I don’t see how I’m assuming an “economic model of rational behavior,” just that people care about fame and fortune, among the other things they care about.

    Michael, I’ll accept your quibbles, except Lenat isn’t that establishment. And I didn’t say influence was easy, just easier than it seems.

  • Excellent post. I would like to see a more sustained focus on how to change incentives to better reward contrarians who turn out to be right. As a convert to prediction markets through “Could Gambling Save Science?,” I have at once been heartened to see the steady increase in focus on prediction markets and at the same time been disappointed by the relatively narrow horizons to which prediction markets have been applied. Commercial applications and entertainment seem to dominate. Proposed reputational bets on climate change are an important exception to this generalization.

    But I’d like to see a much broader consensus among intellectuals, scholars, and scientists that long-term reputation depends on one’s ability to make accurate predictions, or at least on average more accurate predictions in one’s field than are made by others. Ultimately I’d like to see predictive ability play a role in formal academic advancement, in some cases over-riding scholarly publication history as a measure of academic credibility. As long as intellectual hierarchies are largely determined by academic institutions, and academic hierarchies are largely determined by publication records in journals that are edited by members of the existing hierarchy, the dynamic described by Robin above is likely to continue.

    In order for this situation to change, we need to alter some link in the existing chain in the incentives of knowledge-production. Entrepreneurial academic journals not edited by the existing hierarchy offer some hope, philanthropists who fund non-traditional approaches offer some hope, but to date neither of these alternatives seems to have made much progress (though one could argue that the Kochs’ forty year, $100 million philanthropic initiative to fund pro-market intellectual thought has had a significant impact at great cost over a very long period of time).

    A combination of prediction registries (David Brin) and prediction markets which became accepted as valid considerations in faculty tenure and promotion decisions might provide added impetus. But I’d like to see Robin go deep on how to change the incentive structure of knowledge production. A one time prediction market (or decision market) success in a knowledge-discovery domain, funded by a philanthropist, is not likely to do it; the conservative forces in academic knowledge production are far too powerful to be changed by one or two demonstration efforts alone.

  • Bill Howell

    Beautiful comments. Orwellian situations where the people who cause the problems become the leaders of the new fashion-cult-religion, going against everything they have stood for in their career, and most of the time, not even realizing how huge a contradiction this is. You point this out as a career plan, but I suspect that “limited rationality” is a far greater constraint that game theory for most of us, although the latter is (in the form of game theory) probably a much more important basis for “normal thinking” than “straightforward” logic/rational. And never an apology when the old oppressive science religion is overthrown, and never is there accountability. Of course, this doesn’t just happen in research, but research is perhaps even more of a fertile area for this than other human activities.

    I call this “Blowing in the politically-correct science winds”. It is my opinion from science issues over the last three decades that most scientists can do little better than this. We certainly can’t tackle the tough issues in science that challenge orthodox thinking, we cannot judge the veracity or context of scientific results except within the narrow confines of “standard techniques”, and we can only follow the fashions/cults/religions of the day. Rather than rationale, perhaps a key talent we possess is the ability to sense incredibly subtle changes in the speed and direction of the prevailing, politically-correct science winds. And we position ourselves accordingly, at the head of a parade we don’t really understand.

    Only rare scientists can really make progress, and I’m not totally convinced that this is a property of the individuals exclusively, as opposed to a combination of some ability some background, and some insight from related work. We must question systems where the majority (or the consensus) has rule or too much influence over the rare. We also have to question the centralization of science, and the net negative consequences of many management/ funding arrangements. Throwing a dice might be better… as I have little faith that we are able to identify “the rare scientist” (in spite of perennial claims to the contrary). Providing incentives and leadership placements for “winning contrarians”, as suggested in other responses is desirable, but doesn’t seem to work in practice. The pigs always win, whereas in stock markets, “…bulls can win, bears can win, but pigs always lose…”. Maybe there is something to the market-based-decision fashions of today.

    Bill Howell

  • Robin,
    I think it would be good start to see the scope of study of contrarianism in the social and cognitive sciences. I’d be surprised if there isn’t already a large body of experimentation.

    As for what exogenous events push people to be more or less contrarian, I’d expect it to be normal incentives (financial, status, comparative advantage) but I’d be interested to see what the literature and further experimentation has to say about that.

    An experiment I’d be interested in seeing done:
    (1) start off with an analysis by the experimenters of how contrarian a person is.
    (2) create teams with varying contrarian make ups
    (3) expose the teams to varying incentives for coming up with contrarian plans of action
    (4) See how flexible individuals and teams are in performing contrarianism in response to varying incentives.

    There’s a lot to flesh out there, but I hope these type social experiments are already being done frequently.

  • Lois McMaster Bujold: “People have some very odd illusions about power. Mostly it consists of finding a parade and nipping over to place yourself at the head of the band. Just as eloquence consists of persuading people of things they desperately want to believe.”

    I’ve noticed that being a contrarian makes it very hard to gather momentum or get funding reliable enough that you can pay attention to research instead of funding. Possible solution: Be a polymath. In one field, nip over to place yourself at the head of an existing but disorganized parade, and tell people things that they are ready to hear but have not yet thought of for themselves. Then (the plan goes) use the credibility to support your contrarian efforts in the Really Important field, where there is no parade, and people are not ready to hear. Ideally, you can apply the technical knowledge you get from your Really Important insights to organize a disorganized popular parade somewhere. Of course if you are not sufficiently dedicated to your Really Important field, you will undoubtedly end up as a parade-leader; for life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.

  • Contrarians lose even when they win ?

    No they don’t

    from a contrary Sigmar

  • Michael Vassar –

    1) how much evidence do we have that it’s easy to be influential as a contrarian. Counter-examples leap so much more readily to mind than examples on this point.

    I can think of both, but the very first example that sprang to mind was that of an extraordinarily influential outsider, John Boyd. His refrain was, “To be or to do.”

    Clearly, the regular incentives did not apply; he once said, “The most important thing in life is to be free to do things. There are only two ways to insure that freedom — you can be rich or you can you reduce your needs to zero. I will never be rich, so I have chosen to crank down my desires. The bureaucracy cannot take anything from me, because there is nothing to take.”

    I don’t know if Boyd represents an exception to the rule or just a notable example of what happens in many organizations, but having nothing to lose except a sense of purpose does give a certain edge to outsiders.

  • Bruce Bartlett

    A perfect example of this phenomenon that may be testable has to do with economic forecasting, a field I have some personal familiarity with. Those outside the mainstream tend to suffer professionally even when they are right, while many of the most “successful” forecasters are seldom ever right about key economic turning points.

    I used to think this was unfair, but now I don’t. First, unconventional forecasters who make a correct call when the mainstream is wrong are seldom ever able to repeat the performance. Oftentimes, they are what I call “stopped clocks” who forecast the same thing year after year–think of gold bugs–and luck out once in a while. You might have made money taking their advice that one time, but you would lose your shirt if you followed them year in and out.

    Second, what people are paying for when they buy an economic forecast is precisely the mainstream forecast. This is important for money managers, trustees and others who may need to justify their decisions as “prudent.” If the consensus forecast showed no recession, they can’t be sued for missing it.

  • Bruce (and any 3rd party reader), to what degree do you think what you’re describing is economically wasteful? Particularly your second paragraph. I think that’s the more important question than whether it’s “fair” or not.

  • Michael, you ask for a lot. My best guess is that our best lever is shame; patrons could be shamed to back bigshots whose claims are contradicted by reliable betting markets.

    Bill, yes, this is at best an unconscious career plan; self-deception works best that way.

    Eliezer, your suggested strategy requires quite a delay before pursuing the RIF. Few people passionate about such a RIF are willing to wait that long.

    Bruce, stopped clocks are sufficiently discouraged by being punished when they are wrong; punishing them when the are right is too much, as that also punishes those who have good reasons for being contrarian.

  • Bruce, I meant your 3rd paragraph, not second.

  • Shakespeare’s Fool

    In investing I think of
    Benjamin Graham
    Warren Buffett
    Mark Hulbert

    In banking, Muhammad Yunus

    In physics,
    Nicolaus Copernicus
    Marie Curie
    Albert Einstein

    In medicine
    William Harvey
    Joseph Lister,
    Barry J. Marshall

    And the more I expand the list, the less I see any
    pattern other than that new ideas are hard to establish.
    No physicist more famous that Einstein, no investor
    wealthier than Buffett, no banker more honored
    than Yunus.

  • I thought the argument about pundits and the sorts of “public experts” you see on TV was that they had an incentive to make contrarian predictions because there are large rewards for being surprising and right, no effects from being conventional, and virtually no penalties for being surprising and wrong. Going with the herd will not sell many books, but making wild predictions pays off handsomely if you win, and everyone will forget in a few months if you are wrong. Once everyone forgets, get back on TV with your new wild prediction, sell your new book for as long as you can, and either really cash in if you are right or move to the next one if you are wrong.

    It is far from being a scientist or academic, but I would think that there would be some carry-over. If nothing else, the contrarian should be able to catch this wave with a book and some self-promotion. If we have pundits cashing in on radical ideas, the same opportunity should apply to any idea marketable to the public. Maybe contrarians just need a bit more media savvy.

    Heck, if someone can sell conventional academic ideas as “heterodox economics,” we should see Seth Roberts on TV every night under the heading, “Check out this wild idea, and buy his new book!”

  • Shakespeare and Zubon, you don’t seem to be speaking from personal observation or experience.

  • Is that a desire for anecdote?

    I may recall a better citation later, but I did a quick search for the discussion this reminded me of. Unsurprisingly, it has its roots in an Overcoming Bias post from Robin Hanson. A chain of links:


    Key quote (from the second link, unnamed Economist writer, Ms.McArdle?):

    Overall, though, the influence seems to be very different from that in academia. Mr Hanson implies that career considerations make academics more conservatives, handing their peers and superiors things they expect to hear. In journalism, I suspect that the incentive is to take unlikely positions. It’s sort of like having a stock option. The problem with giving executives stock options is that there is no downside to them if the company does poorly; from the newly-endowed executive’s perspective, a company that muddles along doing exactly as well as expected is just as bad as a company where the stock has lost half its value, because his options only pay off if the company does better than expected, causing the stock price to rise. That gives him an incentive to take unnecessary risks.

    Similarly, pundits are almost never punished for being wildly wrong about something. Nor are they rewarded for being right about something—along with 7,000 other pundits. For journalists, a prediction pays off only if it is both right, and unusual. This gives them an incentive to take unnecessary risks, making somewhat outlandish predictions on the off chance that they will be right.

  • Shakespeare’s Fool

    Robin Hanson,

    You are correct. In my post I was not drawing on
    my own experience. But that would be difficult.
    I do not play in your league — almost no one does,
    after all — so there is no realistic way to
    compare my experiences with yours.

    So I tried to think of analogies. And the more
    I think of them, the more I see different ways
    to be a contrarian.

    Perhaps by mentioning some of them in the same
    comment I was only confusing the issue.

    My apologies.


  • Maybe contrarians aren’t as interested in fame and fortune as they are in being *right.*

  • Adirian

    I’m going with the contrary position, which a few have already put forward – that perhaps you are using the wrong currency when considering the advantages or disadvantages of a contrarian position. If your intellectual position is nothing more than a means to fame or fortune, then your intellectual position means little, particularly to yourself. But to what ends do we desire fame and fortune? What good is fame, if it is for qualities you do not possess? (Who wants to be respected for being somebody they aren’t?) What is the point in fortune, if you have thrown away everything you valued to achieve it? You can’t replace self-respect with group-respect, and you can’t buy back your integrity, or the things that integrity protected.

  • Zubon, it should be clear from my post that I wasn’t talking about pundits.

    Mark and Adirian, yes it is plausible that people who choose contrarian strategies have somewhat differing preferences, though it is hardly obvious what exactly those differences are. Nevertheless, they do care about some of the same things, and so it is important to consider whether they are sufficiently rewarded for the risks they take.

  • Adirian

    Robin – in my case, at least, the reward of contrarian thinking is in being correct. (As, if I didn’t believe I was correct, I wouldn’t hold that viewpoint.) The reward of being open about those views in which I am contrarian is that it gives my ideas an opportunity to develop – that is, if I am wrong about something, somebody is likely to point out my mistake, giving me the opportunity to learn from it, that I might be correct the next time. And insofar as I am correct, and by this process develop a tendency to be correct more often, I gain on the whole, even where some individual ideas may be less individually rewarding than would otherwise be the case. (That is, I am most often on the right side, and thus minimize the risk that the non-contrarian undertakes by attempting to run with a rising popular current, when the new position might fall flat on its face – as Carl Sagan did with nuclear winter and many other popularists have done by embracing other rising minority issues.)

  • Your idea is contrarian, and so are you. I deny it and distance myself from you.

    There is a phenomenon in which someone gains great fame and wealth by holding a radical position; is empirically proved to have been completely wrong; and yet continues to enjoy fame and wealth for continuing to hold the same opinion that was proven to be wrong. George Gilder (“Trust the Internet now more than ever”), Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb: Hundreds of millions of people will die of starvation in the 1970s), and Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth: Christ will return in the 1970s) come to mind.

    If this website used a forum instead of a typepad format, there would be much more incentive to follow up to old topics like this.

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  • brendan_r

    Many of the investors who profited from the housing bust copied the ideas and methods (put options on CDOs) of an aspergery nobody named named Michael burry (story told well by Michael Lewis in The Big Short; really a tremendous example of what robin is describing). Since burry worked solo, is a poor speaker, and doesn’t deal well with people it seems obvious the only reason we know he was the first to generate key insights is that he had a market in which to leave a paper trail of obscenely profitable bets.

    (And re bartletts point about stopped clocks, burry is anything but. He’d multiplied his small pool of capital exponentially in his first few years as a standard stock picking value investor. His pivot towards a particular negative macro bet was a reluctant one; and his impatient investors almost forced him to abandon it before it enriched them.)