What Trump Understands That Most People Don’t: Tit for Tat Works

Rob May

I know it is painful to watch Trump on Twitter and at press conferences. The constant attacking of other people, particularly in the way he does it, makes me cringe. But I disagree with the mainstream assessment of why Trump behaves this way. The general view, from what I can tell, seems to be that he is thin skinned and impulsive. Perhaps he is, but let me provide an alternative explanation.

You may have heard of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is the example most commonly used to teach introduction to game theory. Well, in 1980, a professor at the University of Michigan ran a tournament of programs designed to play iterative versions of the prisoner’s dilemma. The winning program was a surprising one called “Tit for Tat.” It is incredibly simple. If your opponent misbehaves, then on the next iteration you misbehave, and if your opponent cooperates, then on the next iteration you cooperate. It never tries to take advantage of anyone, but it always punishes defectors.

I don’t think Trump is thin skinned. I think Trump just knows that, in many areas of life, Tit for Tat works. If he was thin-skinned, I wouldn’t expect him to be appointing Cabinet members that disagree with him on so many core issues. I don’t think he cares about disagreement and criticism when it is done respectfully and in situations where there is interest in finding the truth. But in business over the years, Trump has probably employed Tit for Tat successfully. I do personally know one person who worked for Trump for several years, and he claims one of Trump’s core strategies is just to outlast other people in negotiations. Humans tire easily from social friction — it wears us out. So if you can tolerate it longer than most people, then Tit for Tat will work for you.

What Trump is doing in the media is Tit for Tat. And it’s working. I know this because I don’t see anyone repeatedly engaging him and beating up on him. Elizabeth Warren and others who attacked Trump have backed off. I’m sure part of it is out of respect for the office, part is the desire to be nice, part of it that they have to work with him, but part of it is probably because they 100% know he will retaliate to anything they say.

I’m not passing judgment on whether this is right or wrong. I’m just providing it as an alternative explanation to the mainstream idea that he’s just impulsive and thin skinned.

In general, people who are successful in business aren’t thin skinned. It is tough to get to the top if you are because you do irrational things and end up making bad business decisions and career sinking mistakes. I don’t know Trump, so I can’t be sure, but, I see a lot of evidence that he isn’t thin skinned. It would be hard to do long term negotiations that drag out and out and out if he was impulsive and thin skinned. I think he has just learned from experience that Tit for Tat works, and he is sending a message to everyone that he will always retaliate, with 100% certainty. Think about it, if you were going to attack Trump, you are going to think twice about it, right?

From the outside looking in, to the average person who doesn’t do large business deals, doesn’t think about the world in a game theory way, and doesn’t see Trump behind the scenes, I can see how “thin skinned” is the most likely way to interpret his behavior.

If I’m right, it means we don’t have to worry about some of the things I’ve read that people are worried about — like Trump starting a nuclear war over a hair trigger insult. And it would explain why some people who know him well don’t seem concerned about that either.

This raises two interesting questions. First, now that he is soon to be the most powerful person in the world, Tit for Tat should work well in many cases because he has the biggest bully pulpit. But one of the problems with international relations is that its easy to misperceive things due to cultural, historical, and language differences. Will a perceived slight that triggers a Tit for Tat strategy set off a dangerous escalation? Trump won’t likely strike first, but he might perceive something innocent as a challenge that requires a response.

And secondly, for domestic politics, how do you deal with Trump? Tit for Tat. You have to be willing to grind it out in ugly public confrontations. The only hope a challenger has in the next election is pursuing a strategy whereby Tit for Tat hurts Trump in the views of the public. It requires a lot of careful planning to select the right issues, and serious mental stamina to execute, but it’s possible. If you work on the assumption that Trump is thin skinned and impulsive, your strategies will fail. You have to play Tit for Tat.

Rob May

Written by

Rob May

CEO at Talla.com, Author of a Machine Intelligence newsletter at inside.com/ai, angel investor in 50+ AI companies

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade