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  • John Bickerman

Tit for Tat is Not Just for the Schoolyard

Updated: Oct 22, 2018

In 1980, Robert Axlerod published the first article in what would become his book The Evolution of Cooperation. Based on a fascinating experiment, actually a tournament he conducted, he coined a negotiation strategy, Tit for Tat. Axlerod invited contestants, first from the United States and then from around the world, to submit algorithms that could be deployed against the classic game theory example, the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In its most simplest description, two suspects who have jointly committed a crime are interrogated separately by the police. Their best outcome for both of them results from neither of them confessing to the crime and fingering the other person. If one of them squeals on the other while his buddy stays silent, the squealer does even better, receiving a reduced sentence while the silent one gets the maximum jail time. However, if they both squeal, they receive a worse outcome. Thus, the “game” is a study in negotiation strategy and when to “defect” to gain the greatest advantage. Of course, once a defection is known, the reciprocal action may be worse.

The contestants in Axlerod’s tournament submitted hundreds of different strategies but the one that produced the best joint result was also the simplest. First, start out cooperating. Then, follow what the counterpart does. If the counterpart “defects” in round one, then defect in round two. If the counterpart subsequently cooperates in round two, then cooperate in round three. Axlerod wrote an entire book applying Tit for Tat to different environments, including evolution, international diplomacy, and trench warfare in World War I.

The tournament is a fascinating story but the lessons for negotiators are even better. Axlerod drew several observations about why Tit for Tat was so effective.

Be Nice. At the start of negotiations, there is no benefit to be gained by being ornery or engaging in unprovoked animus. Wait and see what the other side does. Being nice is not synonymous with making unilateral concessions and does not require that you trust the other party. It does mean conducting oneself in a reasonably cooperative manner that invites cooperative behavior from your counterpart. Concessions may come later – first small but then increasing in importance.

Be Clear. Be clear about your intentions and your action. Make sure the other party can tell when you’re acting cooperatively and when you’re not. Your offers and responses should not leave the other side wondering why you just acted the way you did. There is no advantage and lots of risks when misunderstandings ensue in a negotiation.

Be Provocable. Some negotiators will test you. When a counterpart acts aggressively or badly – “defects”, then recognize the action and respond appropriately. Most of the time, the appropriate response is not to respond in anger but to take an action that makes clear to the other side that you have detected a defection or aggressive counter-productive action and that you are responding in kind with your own proportionate defection.

Be Forgiving. If the other side recognizes and corrects its behavior, there is nothing to be gained by continuing to defect. Good behavior should be rewarded just as bad behavior should be punished. Moreover, if the other side recognizes that you have returned to being “nice” then they may continue cooperating, as well, which will lead to a more productive and successful negotiation.

Don’t be Jealous. Good negotiators recognize that a good settlement is one where both parties get some of their needs met. Tit for Tat is premised on maximizing joint gains. By maximizing joint gains you may be able to get most of your needs met. It should not matter to you if the other side also “wins” some of the needs it has. Of course, there are times when the more powerful negotiator may be able to secure a better deal than what can be achieved in a cooperative negotiation. However, a reputation for bullying will follow that negotiator and may redound in the future in negative consequences. The research also shows that parties that try to extract an unfair result may be defeated by a counter-party that foregoes its benefit just to prevent the first party from getting an unfair outcome.

The lessons from Tit for Tat are simple to use and have survived the test of time. I have seen this technique used time and again in my mediations, although sometimes without knowledge of the underlying theory behind it.


John Bickerman is a full-time mediator and arbitrator with a national practice who is located in Washington, DC. He teaches at Cornell University and formerly was the Chair of ABA Section on Dispute Resolution. Comments are always welcome – jbickerman@bickerman.com










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