Understanding the Brexit dilemma – How negotiation games provide analytical tools


Picture Credit – Wikimedia Commons

When Professor Roger Fisher of Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation published ‘Getting to Yes’  in 1981, Game Theory was well developed.

It was firmly in the grasp of mathematicians and economists – not lawyers.

First advanced by mathematicians  in1944, more mathematicians followed, developing a game model of co-operation and conflict. This was later enhanced–  given a prison-sentence scenario and named The Prisoners Dilemma.

Nobel Prize – winning John Nash made further enhancements, giving us the Nash equilibrium – a model of problem solving to analyse and resolve the prisoner’s dilemma game.

By the time ‘Getting to Yes’ was published, game theory was a strong part of economic theory and analysis. Business schools had wrested it from the mathematicians and installed it in mainstream business programs.

Researcher followed researcher – developing and enhancing what has become known as the field of distributive negotiation.

Fisher’s ideas about interest-based negotiation (called integrative negotiation) were influenced by but separate from the distributive work of the business schools.

Fisher embraced The Prisoners Dilemma and other games in his teaching.

He often used the famous Negotiation Auction game, demonstrating how emotion and ego can override rational behaviour in negotiation. In this game, players bid for, say, a $10 note. Bids start low and then move surprisingly close to $10 as the competitive emotions kick in. The rules require that the top two bidders must pay their final bid although only the highest wins. Consistently the last two bidders pay more than the face value of the note, trapped in an ego-driven battle in which emotion overrides reason.

Edward’s Game

Using case studies, Fisher refined this game into something he named ‘Edward’s Game’ – although sadly he did not explain who Edward was nor publish his analysis.  Playing it in class with Fisher, we experienced an addictive game where the proponent has something desired increasingly fiercely by other competing negotiators. The proponent’s pitch is ‘I won’t tell you what I want – you just keep putting offers on the table and I will tell you when it is enough’.

The seductive quality of the game increases with the negotiator’s desire for what is at stake. In the domestic setting we often observe Edward’s Game when one party anxiously seeks forgiveness from another who refuses to indicate what forgiveness will require.

Edward’s Game is the gift that goes on giving.

It provides a terrific frame to test and analyse international dilemmas that appear completely irrational.

Brexit through the lens of Edward’s Game.

Brexit is playing out in the House of Commons, while the world watches in dismay. It is evident that no-one, except the economists who are commenting, the EU and the horrified public, is behaving in a way that can be explained  by the rational, analytical tools of game theory.

Edward’s game has been playing for quite a while.

May clearly has a powerful interest in being seen to honour her promise of being the Prime Minister who implements the public vote to leave. To complicate matters, there is more than one Edward’s game being played out. This makes her negotiation task so much more difficult because the different interests she has to satisfy in order to ‘win’ are in conflict. Some interests use Brexit blocking as a tool to pursue a more devious agenda of self-promotion and derailing of May’s leadership. Some interests relate to overturning the ‘leave’ decision and some interests relate to being unwilling to do anything which might be seen to be ‘giving in’ to the Europe that Brexiteers had vowed never to be seen to agree with again.

May keeps putting more on the table.

She went back to the EU to negotiate an extension. The warring parties would not agree and more of her own party defected to a new independent group with different interests again.

Receiving intelligence that a uniting interest of key decision-makers was her demise, she offered a new solution. She would resign if the proposal negotiated with the EU were approved. No luck.

She is now talking of a further extension which shows no signs of meeting sufficient approval yet for a motion to be passed in the house – but watch this space.

Negotiating Edward’s game successfully

Fisher constantly demonstrated to us willing participants in his game how difficult it was to ‘win’ without giving away more than the value on offer. This is what is happening with Brexit also.

Fisher proposed 3 tools for ‘winning’ Edward’s game. How might they work in this scenario?

  1. Go to yourBATNA– but, leaving it so late, what could have been May’s BATNA has deteriorated into a WATNAand would end in lose/lose – a very bad outcome.
  2. Change the players– May has signalled willingness to resign as the price for approval of her deal but it is too late. Divisions are so entrenched it would be near impossible to find an acceptable leader with the numbers to get May’s deal through. She has been experimenting with another version this week – collaborating with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. A good outcome seems very unlikely.
  3. Change the game– May has already been cycling through Fisher’s seven elements. She has tried ‘relationships’ but her antagonists are prepared to risk all key relationships in their bid to block her. She has tried to brainstorm ‘options’ but masterful Edward’s Game players won’t play. She has tried ‘standards’ but apparently the regulatory pain of a hard Brexit is bearable if it will block her deal. Seems hard to see where to go from here.

Edward’s Game provides a great opportunity for using negotiation tools to explain the apparently irrational. As world leaders in many places showcase their Edward-like skills, commentators and analysts need to name the game early so that constituencies can be encouraged to find common interests quickly and avoid discovering that both the battle and the war have been lost.

This entry was posted in Dispute resolution by Dr Rosemary Howell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr Rosemary Howell

I am a Professorial Fellow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, delivering dispute resolution programs to undergraduate and postgraduate students. My company, Strategic Action, provides mediation, facilitation, coaching and bespoke training to business and government.

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