By David P. Barash

Despite all the bluster about an impending default on the government’s debt, most observers in Washington and on Wall Street still believe the two parties will reach a crisis-averting agreement.

That’s because the practice of American politics assumes that all players will negotiate according to predictable patterns — that they will realize they can get more from compromise than by demanding everything and winning nothing.

Under that assumption, President Obama is right to keep pressing for a compromise, because eventually the Republicans will fall in line. But as two wildly different fields — game theory and the study of elephant mating patterns — show, there are limits to the usual assumptions: sometimes players simply refuse to play the game, and when that happens, the best advice for their opponents is to do the same.

One of the classic games studied in game theory is chicken: two players rush toward each other, each wanting the other to swerve. The one who does, loses. The trick to winning is for one player to convince the other that under no circumstance will he or she veer off course.

For instance, you could insist you’re not really concerned about a crash, or that you might even welcome a collision. Convinced the other driver really feels that way, any rational actor would have to swerve.

President Richard M. Nixon attempted to use this tactic during the Vietnam War. Through various back channels and planted news leaks, he gave the impression that he was not only out of patience but also literally out of his mind, such that, even though it would be totally irrational, he just might use a nuclear weapon on Hanoi if Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, didn’t accede to his demands. (It didn’t work.)

Another tactic, favored by the strategist Herman Kahn, is to “throw out the steering wheel,” to demonstrate that you are locked into a certain path and can’t swerve. Politicians sometimes adopt this approach, insisting that their constituents refuse to accept a compromise and have thus tied their hands. Read more…

David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and the co-author of “Payback: Why We Retaliate, Redirect Aggression and Seek Revenge.”

As published in www.nytimes.com on July 26, 2011 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 27, 2011, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Washington’s Rogue Elephants).


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