Solve the following thought experiment before you read the rest of the blog. Imagine you have a brother. Your father has passed away, and he has left you an inheritance with three assets. The assets are represented symbolically by three coins. Your instructions are that you must share the inheritance fairly but you cannot split any of the assets. Now you must try to find a creative solution that will get you the maximum possible benefit. What is your solution?
HOW WOULD AN ISRAELI AND PALESTINIAN SHARE THE COINS?
A Franciscan monk who was a speaker at an international seminar about world peace, was asked if successful negotiations between Israel and Palestine were possible. He called two young people up to the microphone: a Palestinian young man and a Jewish Israeli young man. He placed three gold coins on the podium and asked them how they would share the inheritance.
When the Palestinian said he would take two coins and give the Israeli one, everyone laughed, and the monk said, “Well, okay, you have the power to do that, but you are sowing the seeds of conflict.” The Israeli said he was actually thinking of taking one coin and giving the Palestinian two. “Evidently,” the monk guessed, “you feel it’s worth the risk of investing in your adversary in this way and hope to somehow benefit in the future from this.” The boys sat down.
Next, the monk asked two young women (again one was Israeli, the other Palestinian) to repeat the exercise. It was fairly clear where the monk was going with this, but would the girls get it? “I would keep one coin and give her two,” said the Israeli young woman, “on condition that she donate her second one to a charity, maybe a children’s hospital.” “Good,” said the monk and asked the Palestinian woman if she agreed. She said, “I would keep one for myself, and give one to her, and say that we should invest the third one together.” The entire audience stood and applauded.
Negotiating is not a game, and it’s not a war, it’s what civilized people do to iron out their differences. There is no point, the monk said, in figuring out how to get the other side to sign something they cannot live with. A negotiated settlement today is not the end of the story, because “there is always the day after,” and a good negotiator should be thinking about the day after, and the day after that.
THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA
A friend of mine introduced me to game theory and, in particular, the merits of a game called the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” This is a two person game which illuminates the way we interact and negotiate with others. Following is the game scenario:
You and a friend are arrested and imprisoned on the suspicion of murder. You are both innocent, but there is enough evidence for the police to suspect and arrest you and your friend. The prosecutor offers both of you, separately, the same deal: if you both hang tough and don’t confess or implicate the other, you will each get a short sentence of five years because the state’s case is weak. If you confess and implicate your friend and he refuses to cooperate, you go scot free and your friend gets life in prison without the possibility of parole. If he confesses and implicates you, he goes free and you go to prison for life without the possibility of parole. If you both confess and implicate each other, you both get sentences of 10 years. What should you do?
If you both defy the prosecutor and refuse to implicate the other, this would be much better for the both of you than if you both confess, so couldn’t you just agree to cooperate with each other to defy the prosecutor. You could promise, but you would each feel the temptation — whether or not you acted on it—to defect, since then you would go free, leaving your friend to play the sucker in deep trouble. Since the game is symmetrical, the other person will be just as tempted, of course, to make you the sucker by defecting. Can you risk life in prison on the other person’s keeping his promise? Wouldn’t it be safer not to take the chance and defect? Can you risk life in prison without the possibility of parole on your friend keeping his promise to cooperate? It’s probably safer to defect, isn’t it? That way, you avoid the worst outcome of all, and might even go free. Of course, the other fellow will figure this out, too, if it’s such a bright idea, so he’ll probably play it safe and defect, too, in which case you must defect to avoid disaster–unless you are a martyr that you don’t mind sacrificing your life because of a promise to cooperate. So, it seems, the chances are that you will both go serve sentences of 10 years, even, though, you’re both innocent.
This is the same kind of dilemma many face when we negotiate with others, however friendly and trusting we may be with each other. Consider the school board negotiating a wage contract with school teachers, or county politicians negotiating a “no smoking” ban with the restaurant association. Each side is looking out for itself and has its own interest at heart first and foremost as they fight for a shared resource or a change in public policy, even as they promise to cooperate with each other in the community’s interest. It seems natural for each side to ask first what’s in it for me and why should I believe or trust the other side?
To overcome these thoughts and suspicions, I propose the following policy when you are negotiating with some other person or group for a shared resource. Select a person, not related to the problem, who is acceptable to both sides to serve as an impartial judge. Second, each side presents the judge its most reasonable proposition that addresses the subject being negotiated. The judge reviews the propositions and accepts the one, in his or her opinion, is the more reasonable and discards the other. The most reasonable is the proposition adopted and implemented, and the other one is discarded.
This changes the focus of both sides. Now the pressure is to develop and present its most reasonable proposition possible; otherwise, you run the risk of the other side being more reasonable than you and having its proposition approved and implemented. Can you afford not to be as reasonable as you can be?