Twin Conspiracies

In a twin conspiracy, a pair of identical twins would pretend to be only one person. For example, in college each twin could specialize in, and then ace, half of the classes; their GPA would soar.  They might together make partner in a law firm by handling a lot more work than other lawyers.  They could cheat on their spouse while offering that spouse a near-constant video of “their” activities.  In fact, they could always have an alibi for anything they did.

This strategy seems tempting in “winner take all” areas of life where small productive gains are given huge rewards, or where secretly having more time can make you seem a lot more productive.  For example, high level managers attend a great many meetings to connect different parts of their organization.  A secretly-twin-CEO could attend twice as many meetings, and make twice the connections.

Of course if this actually happened often our institutions could easily adapt to check for secret twin conspiracies.  They don’t now look because they don’t expect them.  It would be interesting to search for such secret twins.  For example, one might take a list of top CEOs and compare the ratio of non-identical to identical twins in this group. If that ratio was substantially larger than in the larger population, that might suggests many secret twins hiding among CEOs.

One twin told me the loss of autonomy in this secret twin scenario would make it unacceptable to her, no matter what worldly success it produced.   Do people really care that much more about autonomy than success?

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  • Sigivald

    Would the gain be sufficient to make it worthwhile?

    IE, assuming the level of competence required to pull this off at those levels of practice (and all the information sharing and processing between the twins in order to successfully act like one hypercompetent individual – nobody values a CEO who goes to twice as many meetings and produces ill-informed and incoherent decisions from them), would the net income (money, power, prestige, whatever) be more than twice an individual supercompetent twin’s income?

    Even if we don’t worry about autonomy and free time value?

    Is I(T1+T2) > I(T1) + I(T2)? (Especially, again, when T1 and T2 are exceptionally clever, efficient, and competent, to be able to pull off the scam successfully!)

    Is it when we do include the value of autonomy and free time?

    It seems pretty unlikely.

    • gwern

      What about winner take all scenarios – like being a CEO? The difference between the CEO and also-rans seems to be multiples of the salary; better to team up and split a $50 million salary than to individually earn low millions, no?

  • rapscallion

    I kind of doubt that this would be doable in many areas of life outside school, where you just have to keep up on what’s being studied and can examine each other’s lecture notes. Most high-earning jobs require you to be completely up-to-date on information from recent conversation and meetings.It would be hard and time-consuming to convey everything to the other twin. Maybe you could get around this somewhat by having longer periods between switches, but that would also likely decrease productivity gains. Also, it would probably make work days much more stressful just because of personal relationship issues. A primary means of tension relief in most jobs is conversing light-heartedly with coworkers, but with a conspiracy you’d always have to be on your guard that you might reveal that you don’t know something important. It’d be quite stressful.

    And as for doing this in your personal life, will, I think you’d just have to be some kind of sociopath for that to seem appealing.

  • Chris

    I would think this would be extremely difficult to pull off for long, especially when people who know one twin start noticing unexplainable knowledge and memory gaps when they talk to the other twin (especially when you consider the number of trivial, but memorable events or discussions that happen day to day). Personality and habit differences would also create significant problems.

    To pull it off successfully, the twins would essentially have to avoid any kind of personal contact.

  • Matt

    While both of you are working one job you are splitting a salary for one person between each other. You will always only get half your income.

  • Norman

    Not to spoil it for everyone, but this is one of the major plot twists to the movie The Prestige. It doesn’t end well.

  • Greg Conen

    If a system that can be effectively exploited by a twin conspiracy exists, it is shows a massive inefficiency in the system.

    If being able to attend twice as many meetings sufficiently outweighs the communication costs, scheduling difficulties, etc. that twins have a significant advantage over a single CEO, the duties of the CEO should be split so that two people do the job. That would have all the advantages of a twin conspiracy, and far fewer costs imposed by the need for deception.

    • Sasha

      Very well said.

  • Pseudonyms can be used this way. If Bourbaki had wanted, they could have built a reputation as a phenomenally successful single mathematician.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      Most of the advances of the Pythagoreans were attributed to Pythagoras even after his death. Also, there are some Arabic philosophers that were a little too prolific, in terms of treatises written. It must have been multiple people writing under the same name.

      • Dylan

        Or it provides evidence of reincarnation and Richard Posner’s past lives.

  • Robert Koslover

    I think, for now, this is much more effective for alibis than for productive work. That said, if some day, high-speed information links and memory sharing between twins become possible, then maybe then one could do more with this. Of course, in that case, I don’t see why this would have to be limited to twins. Why not link everyone? Then we could ALL act as if we were one super-efficient person and… maybe even call ourselves “The Borg” … Hey, it’s just a suggestion — pick your own name if you don’t like it. 🙂

    • gwern

      > That said, if some day, high-speed information links and memory sharing between twins become possible, then maybe then one could do more with this.

      I think this is precisely the direction Robin is going at – uploads. Before one can upload an entire brain, it seems plausible that one could have high speed links between brains and with computers.

      Identical twins are already renowned for their uncanny insight into each other and mimickry. To what degree could technology take it?

      Even today’s tech shows us what one could do in such a situation; consider twins set up with a personal wiki, an IRC channel/text messaging, little portable cameras which are always recording & uploading data (‘lifelogging’), and so on could do. Each could constantly be saving notes, tagging photos (one twin never met a person? No matter, the facial recognition daemon automatically pops up the profile and conversations that person had with the other twin), coordinating with each other or outright relaying the other person a la Cyrano de Bergerac.

      Imagine twins who were doing this from birth. They could share so much knowledge and thoughts that they might be better regarded as 2 halves of a brain (it’s not like the corpus callosum is *that* great a connection between brain hemisphere; look at split-brain patients).

  • azmyth

    You are clearly (although implicitly) saying that there are massive economies of scale to some labor markets, whereby two people can be several times as productive as one person. I just don’t think this is plausible. In winner take all markets, what matters is the skill of one person, not how many people you have. Two mediocre basketball playing twins could not get nearly Michael Jordan’s salary, and two mediocre manager twins could not match the productivity of a good CEO.

  • John Maxwell IV

    Speaking of cheating in school. Let’s say Joe the biology major can’t stand the fact that he’s being forced to take quantum physics (“irrelevant for my major!”) so he gets Mike the physics grad student to take the class for him. Mike tells the class he is Joe and puts Joe’s name on everything he turns in. Are there any mechanisms set up to prevent *this*?

    • At my university we have student cards with our photos on them which must be presented at exams. However, the photos are blurry and rarely checked closely – if you could find someone similar looking you could almost certainly get away with it.

      To those above saying this shows the irrationality of ‘winner takes all’ markets, they need to consider the psychological benefits a firm derives from having everything (including competitors) think it is being run by a single very impressive person with superhuman productivity. This may explain why super-managers get such high salaries when their job might instead be divided between multiple people or an impersonal mechanism like prediction markets.

      • spriteless

        The explanation I’ve heard for that is so the peons will work harder in the hopes of getting that bigger paycheck… but that also works.

  • Dagon

    I can’t think of many opportunities to profit here. Anywhere (outside artificial competitions like endurance sports) that two people can do better than the sum of their efforts, they tend to be ALREADY team-based. For most tasks, there are actually pretty severe disadvantages to hiring one person to work 16 hours a day over two to work 8 each.

    CEOs aren’t hired for output time available, they’re hired for decisions and connections.

    • Douglas Knight

      CEOs aren’t hired for output time available, they’re hired for decisions and connections.

      Comprehensive decisions are difficult, but connections are exactly the kind of things twins could do better.

  • MPS

    Why would firms want to stop twin CEOs or any other twin employees for that matter? Presumably, if two people are willing and able to do a better job than one, for the same fee, then that’s the way the job should structure.

    I should say I personally don’t believe this is the way things structure, which is why I think it’s silly to cling too closely to market ideals, when assessing reality. Because in my mind, you could get a structured team of people to do a better job for $20M than a single CEO — especially if every firm realized this and cut back on the availability of single-person $20M jobs.

  • William H. Stoddard

    I can think of two treatments of this idea in fiction: Robert Heinlein’s young adult novel The Rolling Stones, and the film The Prestige. Heinlein shows one hazard of this approach: one twin takes both his and his twin’s course in medieval history; the other takes both his and his twin’s course in analytical geometry; later on, the one who took history has trouble with more advanced math. If you’re working in a field where cumulative knowledge is needed, dividing the work between two people is going to get you in trouble.

  • Nominull

    So if there are actual efficiency gains to be had here, why bother with the conspiracy? Why bother with the twins? Why not just have two people? It’s not like the world is suffering from massive underpopulation.

    • azmyth

      Oh, but it is; just read Julian Simon. 🙂

  • Steven Schreiber

    If you check a CEO schedule, the only way to attend twice as many meetings would be to attend two meetings simultaneously. This will create problems, guaranteed, because a lot of the people the CEO talks to will know other people if there are such huge gains to be had.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Do people really care that much more about autonomy than success?

    Possibly. Success is a far goal, while the loss of automony is a near, everyday occurence, that you can never relax from. Hedonistic treadmill type arguments would imply that the everyday rewards of success could never compete with this; only those with inhuman discipline could keep their eyes focused on the far goal of success.

  • IVV

    We use the gains from our production to live the life we want to.

    What is success if not autonomy?

  • Tim Tyler

    Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers” has twins sharing one life.

  • Jason Malloy

    They could cheat on their spouse and while offering that spouse a near-constant video of “their” activities.

    Identical twins aren’t that identical.

  • Aaron

    Even if it were feasible (as others have pointed out, it isn’t) the twin frequency among CEOs test isn’t particularly useful.

    Having an identical twin would clearly be huge influence on someone, how are you going to control for that many confounders?

  • Heh, this is actually the plot for the movie Marked for Death, where the leader of a Jamaican drug cartel is actually two people who are twin brothers. (“The secret to his magic is that he has two heads and four eyes.”) “He” is, of course, amazingly effective.

    When the protagonist kills “the” leader and presents his severed head to the rest of the gang, they’re shocked … until the twin finally reveals his existence and walks in the scene.

    Oh, and sorry for the spoilers.

  • Nichlemn

    “You are clearly (although implicitly) saying that there are massive economies of scale to some labor markets, whereby two people can be several times as productive as one person. I just don’t think this is plausible. In winner take all markets, what matters is the skill of one person, not how many people you have. Two mediocre basketball playing twins could not get nearly Michael Jordan’s salary, and two mediocre manager twins could not match the productivity of a good CEO.”

    I think asymmetric information would be the best reason. The twins give all the appearances of being highly talented, which end in them getting a high paying job that they’re not necessarily that great at, but monitoring difficulties allow them to get away with it.

  • amy lyons

    What would be the point? You would have to share your income without twice the personal tax allowance so most of it would be taxed at 50% and you only get half of half. Plus, which of you gets to sleep with the gorgeous spouse each night? Yes, you could cheat on your wife (or husband) but you also have to share her/him in the first place.

    I also agree with a previous commentator that nobody would mind if there were two of you doing the job, as long as you were doing it well and taking only one salary. What’s for the shareholders not to like?

    Nah, if I were a twin, I might use the situation better to complete the perfect one-off bank heist: even if you were caught, as long as you each claimed it was the other and “you” were the one at the opera (with lots of witnesses), then the case couldn’t be proved beyond reasonable doubt against either of you…even with DNA evidence and CCTV footage, so you both get off 🙂

  • Tracy W

    But everyone who knows two individual twins who were brought up together knows that identical twins are distinct people from each other, each with their own personality and some slight differences in looks. The CEO’s colleagues would notice. (See Judith Harris’s “No Two Alike” where she discusses the cases of identical twins brought up together, along with the more famous examples of identical twins brought up separately).

    And also, how would these two identical twins cope with disagreements between them on how to handle all sorts of decisions?

  • The one area where a twin conspiracy seems to me to pay off is in studying for qualifications. Two twins co-study for a qualification, and then go off and live their own lives, each now in possession of the qualification that they have done only half the work for.

    So they each get a higher score / more advanced qualification / in less time than they could have managed on their own. Yes, they each individually only covered part of the syllabus so there are holes in their knowledge but outside of academia who really ever gets tested on that.

  • This is a joke right? lol

  • “Twins’ DNA foils police – Police found a DNA sample at a crime scene only for their investigation to stall when they discovering it belongs to one of a pair of identical twins.”