We negotiate throughout our lives in a lot more ways than we realize. Learning how to reach an agreement is a valuable skill to have, and one great way to sharpen this skill is quite counterintuitive.
Game theorists and psychologists have figured out that in instances where we can’t outsmart an opponent, we’re more likely to “win” or gain a favorable outcome if we act irrationally. The act of evoking powerful emotions and being a bit of a hothead shows our opponent that we’re willing to go the distance on what we want and throws off their usual mental calculus
This has led psychologist Steven Pinker to conclude that a measure of irrationality and lack of control can sometimes be an advantage in negotiations.
Not convinced? Just look at the Disruptor in Chief.
The process of coming to an agreement is a messy affair in the context of politics. Deadlocked partisan views and strong-willed politicians make the arena of negotiation a perilous place. Which is why an element of irrationality can go a long way.
Donald Trump is one of the most controversial presidents in recent memory – you could call him the Disruptor in Chief. His predilection for outrageous statements has stuck with him throughout his presidency, and he continually perplexes both his opponents and even some of his most vocal supporters.
Simply put, Donald Trump is irrational – yet, this unpredictability may just be the exact tool that has helped him succeed in securing the presidency and in dealing with leaders on the international stage.
The Strategy of Conflict
Thomas C. Schelling, who was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote the influential book The Strategy of Conflict. It’s a book that has come to define international diplomatic relationships. The principles that Schelling sets out theorize international politics during the Cold War, as it was originally published in 1960, but it is still relevant today. Some scenarios explored in depth include: How does one person make another person believe something? What are the costs of a stalemate? Might burning your bridges be in your best interest?
Uncovered in Schelling’s book is a basic tenet of game theory, which Trump is utilizing whether he knows it or not. In the confines of a conflict, a person’s power depends on how much the other party perceives the other person’s willingness to go through with a threat, even if it comes at a cost to themselves.
That is to say, if an opponent sees the other person as irrational and likely to go through with their threat regardless of the harm it might inflict on themselves, the opponent is likely to concede to the irrational force.
Many pundits see this in the way that Trump decides to deal with foreign powers, one moment thrashing and criticizing allies, then strong-arming oppositional superpowers with tariffs the next. Traditional politicians would most likely have taken a safer route in negotiating foreign trade deals. This may work to Trump’s advantage when final negotiations come down to the wire.
Trump has always positioned himself as a man who could make a deal. While he was just a candidate, he told The New York Times that solving Israel-Palestine relations would be easy, saying: “A lot of people think that’s the hardest of all deals to negotiate. But I would say that I would have a better chance than anybody of making a deal.”
Embracing Madman Theory
There is precedence in American politics for this kind of volatile strategy.
Nixon’s “Madman Theory” was created so that he could always keep his adversaries guessing about his next move. Nixon wanted the North Vietnamese and Soviets to always feel on edge as they pursued a peace agreement. His intention was for them to feel dread if they pushed too hard against the U.S. While speaking with his chief of staff, Bob Halderman, he stated:
“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
Theater in negotiation isn’t a tool to be overlooked, as Richard Holbrooke – a man described by The New York Times as “the last great freewheeling diplomat of the American Century” – well knew. Ronan Farrow, journalist and author of War on Peace, tells Big Think, “Someone like Richard Holbrooke, during the Bosnia negotiations at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, he had luggage delivered – prominently – outside of the doors of the American diplomats present so that the other side would think, “Oh no! The clock is ticking, the Americans are going to pull out.” And it was a complete feint, but it worked and it got people back to the table at a tough time in the talks.”
While you might never have to broker a trade deal with China or mediate an international peace agreement, the act of hotheadedness can give you a leg up in negotiating everyday situations. Learn more methods of emotional mastery with video lessons ‘For You’ and ‘For Business’ from Big Think+. You can sign up for yourself right now, or request a demo for your organization.