WASHINGTON (AP) — Psychologists and mediators compare the
political wrangling over the debt limit to a dangerous game of "chicken"
with both sides racing cars at each other head-on.
This is not
political rhetoric. It's a real-life psychological negotiating scenario
where it sometimes helps to seem crazy, international relations experts
say. And while it usually ends in a fair deal, sometimes it's a complete
Much of the
debt limit talks are secret, so progress could be being made; White House
officials Thursday expressed some optimism. Outside experts, though, don't
like what they can see from the public statements.
"If there is a
recipe for poor negotiations and poor negotiation outcome, watch what
these political leaders have been doing these past few days," said Daniel
L. Shapiro, founder of the Harvard International Negotiation Program. This
is from a psychologist who has started a mediation program used in 30
countries and has been named "Peacemaker of the Year" by a mediation
little listening, very little learning — mutual learning — very little
cross-group communication, very little creative thinking," he said.
hope this marriage can be saved, the experts say. What's needed is a sense
of empathy on both sides, the idea that we're all in this together, said
some professional mediators and psychologists contacted by The Associated
They blame a
lack of trust, pandering to political bases and too much heated emotions.
"If you start
framing this as a war, it becomes a war," Shapiro said. "This is very
it a "very deadly game of chicken," noting that chicken is a negotiation
scenario well studied by psychologists, sociologists, economists and
diplomats. In the game, two cars drive head-on. If neither swerves out of
the way there is the worst possible outcome: a crash. If both swerve,
everyone survives with the same honor. The ultimate win: one doesn't
swerve, the other does.
Another way to
win: throw the steering wheel out the window and make sure the other side
knows it and will be forced to flinch. Shapiro thinks that's happened in
Washington, but American University international studies professor Joshua
has written a book chapter about the chicken game in diplomacy, said the
side that has the least to lose is more believable when it threatens to
ditch the steering wheel and go for broke: "It gives the weaker party more
situation, tea party followers have more credibility in their
throw-the-wheel-out threats and President Barack Obama, who wants to be
re-elected, can't play consequences-be-damned, he said.
The game of
chicken "has to be dangerous in order to give people the incentive to
cooperate. It helps if you are crazy or if you pretend to be crazy,"
have shown in experiments that the chicken game's mutual destruction
possibility somehow gets individuals to cooperate more, about two-thirds
of the time. But that's not necessarily the case with groups. When two
groups of people are involved, the best possible outcome occurs only about
a quarter of the time, and the chance of complete disaster rises, a 1997
study in the Journal of Conflict Resolution shows.
Leaders can be
more likely to compromise but their colleagues push them to not make
concessions and instead head off the cliff, Shapiro said.
debt negotiations reminds Linda Tropp, a professor of psychology at
University of Massachusetts Amherst, of the continuing Israel and
Palestinian conflict. It's more competitive bargaining than a
give-and-take dialogue, said Tropp, director of her school's peace and
increasingly more entrenched," Tropp said. "And the more we go on this
route toward protracted conflict, the harder and harder it will be to undo
the pain of the past."
The key to
breaking that deadlock is trying to see the other side's view more and to
humanize — not demonize — your counterpart, both Tropp and Shapiro said.
both sides have to "turn this from a me-versus-you situation to a shared
problem. If this does not go well, this is bad for everybody."
optimistic is Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City
University of New York. He compares the debt fight to the Cold War with
both sides' fingers on the nuclear button in a scenario called mutually
assured destruction. Renshon is sure the fear of economic and political
catastrophe will result in a last-minute deal, saying "reality is a pretty