A few weeks ago, I spent a very pleasant and interesting day in the company of a group of international relations students at John Hopkins University, guiding them to discover the topic of negotiation. The introduction to the topic took place through a game based on the famous ‘prisoner’s dilemma’: as is often the case, many people are familiar with it from a theoretical point of view, e.g. because they have encountered it during their studies in economics or financial science, but in practice this rational knowledge is as if it became inaccessible, as I will tell you in the blogpost.

The prisoner’s dilemma is a classic problem in game theory and explores rational decision-making when, between two or more individuals or groups, there is a possible open negotiation. For those unfamiliar with it, one starts by imagining that there are two criminals who have been arrested and detained in two separate cells, with no possibility of communicating with each other. Whoever is interrogating them offers each prisoner separately a plea bargain: if one confesses and the other does not, the former gets a reduced sentence, the latter a more severe one; if both confess, they get a moderate sentence, if they deny they both get the maximum sentence. The dilemma lies in the fact that the choices are interlinked and that if one of them confesses, the other risks a more severe penalty.

One of the games created to experience the dilemma first-hand, involves the formation of two groups and a point-counting mechanism that is illustrated in the box. The game is then repeated a certain number of times, to give players the opportunity to experience the consequences of their strategy and possibly play differently. Playing the game and then dealing with the underlying theory is fun and generates deep learning: the strong emotional experience that the game allows helps to fix the theoretical elements. The first time I happened to play it I was still at university, and although I had a good knowledge of game theory, I fell right into the trap of the ‘fixed pie mindset’, along with my team: an experience I have never forgotten.

The ‘fixed pie mindset’ is still repeated, rather punctually, with students or in the training rooms to which I propose the exercise. The ‘fixed pie mindset’ consists of the inability to ‘enlarge the pie’, exploring all possible negotiation factors and strategies, treating the other party as an enemy to be beaten.

Rationally, players know how they should behave, they often know, from a theoretical point of view, the different possible strategies of the game, but when they are involved in the actual experience, something very visceral seems to drive the choices. In the game, exactly as in the formulation of the two prisoners, there is an initial situation of isolation and impossibility of information exchange between the two or more parties involved working in separate rooms. Each group, at the beginning, has ten minutes to decide on its game strategy.

It is at this moment that fantasies about the other group’s intentions begin and the certainty often arises in the group that, because the others have bad intentions, they must defend themselves. From this moment on, the win-win strategy is completely concealed.

Some observations during this phase in which groups deal with uncertainty and stress due to the pressure of time and the unknown situation:

  • Often groups discuss starting from a representation of the system that does not take into account the others, of how the scores are constructed, of the fact that the possibility of scoring positive points for one’s own group is linked to how the other group will play: the difficulty of dealing with the complexity in the description of the system, of including the other in one’s strategy, creates an illusion of simplicity and linearity of the game. This simplified perception then prevents one from seeing, in practice, that there is a collaborative strategy that allows one to achieve a sub-optimal result, of course – the best possible result for one group is when, systematically, one succeeds in making the other group play in a ‘self-destructive’ manner, but this, apart from pathological cases, is unrealistic – which is the one that allows both groups not to end the game with a negative score. Paradoxically, this strategy, lose-lose, is not rationally preferred, but in fact ends up being chosen.
  • When groups discuss what ‘winning’ means, ‘scoring more points than others’ is evoked: this is a perceptual phenomenon to which we will return later in the article.
  • It is difficult to perceive that, since oral communication is reduced, the communication system in the early stages of the game consists of the game moves and that in particular, the first move of the game will clearly communicate the players’ intentions: the reduction of the possibility to communicate generates mistrust, this generates generally hostile first moves of the game, and the initial mistrust becomes a spiral from which it is then difficult to escape.
  • Sometimes one of the groups becomes aware of the race to ruin when playing with the competitive-only strategy and tries to change the game, but it is often too late and the climate of mutual distrust is now established.

There are two important conditions that cause the cake to be perceived as fixed: the first concerns expectations, and in particular the simplification of reality that consists in describing the system as ‘win-lose’. Why does this happen? Explanations can go back as far as our evolutionary history, in particular to habits linked to survival and the struggle for the appropriation of resources. Habits that are then reinforced culturally, for example for organisations, by the metaphors used, on leadership or group dynamics.

The heavy use made, for example, of sports metaphors favours the activation of ‘win-lose’ representations. The second condition, linked to the first, concerns the transparency of information. Numerous researches in fact show how, despite the fact that it is now known that a clear and honest exchange of information on preferences and negotiating factors between the different parties can open up more efficient results in negotiations, the interpretation of the setting as only competitive leads to information opacity, generating real comedies of errors with unsatisfactory results for all.

This is what happened in the classroom with my students. When the idea of ‘doing more than the others’ began to circulate, the other group went from a group of nice fellow students and friends, with whom one will be in relationship for at least another year, to the ‘enemy to beat’. At times when the two groups were allowed to converse, the sent ambassadors did not hesitate to lie. Competitive expectations have generated competitive and unfair behaviour, the winner takes it all, the cake is only one and I try to grab as big a share of it as possible.

This way of perceiving negotiation is called ‘distributive’ (wealth can only be distributed more or less equally between the two sides and the goal becomes to appropriate as much of it as possible). The game ended with both teams unhappy as they realised the negative points they had accumulated. The emotions verbalised were of frustration, anger, regret for the decisions made.

There is an alternative to the ‘fixed pie mindset’ and distributive negotiation: this is the ‘integrative’ model, which starts from expectations that are open to the possibility of cooperation even in a competitive setting, leading to greater transparency in the exchange of information and thus to the possibility that different and/or common interests may emerge, widening the area of possible agreement of the parties. But this type of negotiation, which is the one promoted among others by the model of the Harvard researchers, Ficher and Ury, and popularised in the famous text “Getting to Yes”, only occurs in 40% of cases, according to a meta-analysis conducted by another group of researchers.

This 40 per cent is particularly worrying when we think about important negotiations, such as peace negotiations – and what is happening right now in the Ukraine peace talks should give us pause for thought – and in another type of negotiation that is crucial for our future, climate negotiations.

To these, John Bazerman of Harvard University and Don Moore of the University of Berkeley have devoted an interesting article in which they analyse the causes of the failure of many climate-related negotiation processes. The fixed pie mindset, with results that are losers for all, is due, as described in the article “The Human Mind as a Barrier to Wiser Environmental Agreements”, to a number of factors, some generalisable to all negotiations, such as the competitive and simplifying complexity mindset model, applied indiscriminately, as we have illustrated above, and, again, other cognitive biases, in particular incompatibility of interests bias, information availability bias, anchoring bias, memory effect, again, the endowement effect – which pushes one to attribute a higher value to what one possesses, and thus to make fewer concessions.

Finally, the authors speak of ‘pseudo-sacredness’, i.e. the fact that the value formed in the market is not recognised as being within the area of possible agreement, because the emotional value attributed to the object is very different. The authors cite an example of this phenomenon, which occurred during a negotiation between an organisation promoting ecotourism, which highlighted the inability of the indigenous people to take care of their land (from their point of view) and the Mexican Lacandon Maya group.

The value attributed to the land and trees by the indigenous people was very high: they believed that, for every tree felled, there would be a star that would be taken from the sky and therefore that the forest should absolutely be preserved. An unmeasurable and transcendent value. Yet this group reached a negotiated agreement that allowed partial deforestation in favour of the development of eco-responsible tourism. “When they (the natives) were asked how they could agree to have the trees cut down, the answer was that the agreement was the best alternative to keep as many stars in the sky as possible. “

Certainly, the example is apt to illustrate a movement from distributive to integrative bargaining and, hence, a move away from fixed pie bias. Going further, however, we could make some assumptions about the deep and systemic pattern that drives this arrangement. Even with all the good intentions (ecotourism, respect for the land, regeneration of the forest, etc.) in this example there is the idea of a paternalistic capitalist system that ‘saves’ the indigenous people from possible destruction due to their beliefs – accused of not managing the land according to ‘eco-responsible’ criteria decided by the buyers, particularly with regard to fishing and hunting.

But in an interesting analysis of the case, by anthropologist Valentine Lousseau, (follow the link for more information https://journals.openedition.org/elohi/455?lang=en#tocto1n1 ) it is specified that “the use made of the Lacandon area has always aroused the interest, if not the wonder, of foreign observers. Ethnologists, biologists and ecologists have praised the efficiency of a production and resource extraction system that is said to be perfectly adapted to the tropical forest ecosystem”.

In this example, as in many negotiations on climate and the exploitation, expropriation and dispossession of land, there is a reference system, a fixed mental model, the market, which is never questioned and which guides the analysis (even of Harvard researchers) and the final decision, including the enlargement of the cake. We have seen, however, how this model contains within it a great shadow, an interpretative distortion that forces the actors within a competitive system, which in the climate negotiations leads to the results we are currently experiencing, one of which is the failure to agree on the limits of CO2 emissions that lead to the disastrous greenhouse effect, which will make this planet uninhabitable much sooner than was foreseeable. The pie metaphor carries within it something deeply related to a market and consumerist paradigm. The cake, whether fixed or variable, still refers to consumption, to the moment when it will be eaten and will no longer exist.

An alternative is perhaps in a different way of thinking, which is no longer how to enlarge the pie within the same system of rules and ways of reading and operating, which take us back to the same errors and routines of behaviour. We could ask ourselves if the ‘fixed pie mindset’ instead how to rethink, at a deeper level, the basic assumptions from which we start. A pie that is no longer, therefore, ‘inside’ the system, but the system itself and its unquestionability. The paradigm of regeneration (whose principles you can read about on the blog), linked to ecosystem functioning and naturally complex, would lead us, for example, to ask ourselves: rather than enlarging a cake that will be eaten anyway, what choices lead to regenerating life rather than just consuming it, in a system in which we, the other party, and the environment, are constantly in relation?

And you, dear readers of our blog, what do you think?