Social Psychology Explains Congressional Dysfunction: Part II

Last week I wrote about how the recent zero-sum nature of public policy (e.g. Mitch McConnell’s stated priority of making Obama a one-term president) overrides the compromise-inducing strategy of perspective taking.  Unfortunately, that’s that the only reason to doubt our political system. A new study by researchers at the University of Amsterdam provides yet another explanation for why zero-sum congressional negotiations lead to so many impasses.

The researchers examined how knowing your opponent’s motivation affects negotiation in “appetitive competition” (where the goal is to outperform the other party) and “aversive competition” (where the goal is to avoid losing). They hypothesized that “appetitive” competitions would lead to more agreement, but that when competitors had information about each other’s motivations the opposite would occur.

Once appetitive competitors know their counterpart also seeks relative gain and will not settle for anything less, their only way out is through a fierce battle that might result in an impasse with no outcome for both. Thus, whereas knowing one’s counterpart also is an aversive competitor may help in reaching agreement, knowing one’s counterpart also is an appetitive competitor undermines the likelihood of agreement.

Subjects in the experiment were told they were the buyer or seller of a prospective company and then given a set of preferences for five issues related to the sale on which they would need to negotiate. Half the subjects were primed to pursue “aversive goals” and half were primed to pursue “appetitive” goals. In addition, half the subjects were informed of their opponent’s motivation, and half were kept in the dark. The results confirmed the proposed hypothesis — knowing your opponent’s motivation kills agreement in an “appetitive” competition.

Whereas this information enabled aversive competitors to build-in safety, to develop trust, and to reach agreements that provided both parties with high outcomes, this information shattered appetitive competitors’ confidence and pushed them into an escalatory spiral with an almost guaranteed lose–lose end result.

In the last ten years the distinction between electoral politics and the politics of actually governing has nearly disappeared. The result is that every negotiation over policy has become extremely “appetitive.” Instead of the goal being to solve a problem with minimal “losses”, the goal is to gain an advantage over the other party. What’s worse, both parties know this, thereby fulfilling all the requirements for the disastrous negotiations the paper’s authors predict.
Ten Velden, F., Beersma, B., & De Dreu, C. (2011). When competition breeds equality: Effects of appetitive versus aversive competition in negotiation Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (6), 1127-1133 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.06.003

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