Trump is playing the wrong game

Trump seems to see negotiation as a game of chicken. This is how most people see negotiation, but it’s a naive view.

Sophisticated negotiators seek to avoid turning negotiations into games of chicken. They view this as a failure.

Why?

They avoid it because the optimal strategy in a game of chicken is to appear utterly reckless and irrational to your opponent.

In the classic “two cars driving towards the cliff, first to hit the breaks loses” game, the optimal strategy is to let your opponent see you knock back a bottle of whiskey before you get in your vehicle. (whether it’s real alcohol doesn’t matter, only the appearance).

In negotiating, when viewed as a game of chicken, the optimal strategy is to adopt an extreme position at the outset, such that the eventual compromise is tilted as much in your favor as possible.

So why avoid this? The problem is that this strategy requires that you misrepresent your actual views. Consequently, it will only work a few times before people get wise to it and adapt, which negates any advantage for you.

At the risk of laboring the point, it’s like playing poker and bluffing on every hand. Early in the game, this strategy will be quite effective, even against very sophisticated players. Witness Trump’s stunning success against sophisticated politicians in primaries and the general election. This apparent success convinced some fairly smart people that this is the correct strategy. After all, it got him to the Whitehouse, didn’t it? You can’t argue with success, can you?!

There is a much more severe problem. This strategy requires that you sacrifice your credibility. The ability to convince others of your sincerity is a critical persuasive tool, and at the end of the day, politics isn’t a game of chicken, it’s a game of persuasion.

There are actually very few true zero-sum games in politics, although unfortunately, it’s common for people to view political issues that way — it’s the reason for many of our problems.

In the language of game theory, most political questions are actually “iterated prisoner’s dilemmas.” Maximizing your benefit in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma requires trust between participants. Games of chicken destroy trust.

Most politicians have figured this out by the time they get anywhere near real power. Trump has become the most powerful politician in the world, apparently without learning this.

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