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'Bad negotiators': Experts say Congress is getting it wrong in fiscal talks

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, right, look at their notes during a ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, in July. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

People negotiate over everything. Where to go on vacation, how much to pay for a new car, how to merge international companies, and – as the American people have learned in recent weeks – how to fund the government and pay the debts of the most powerful nation on the planet.

Bargaining is so ubiquitous that there’s an entire research community devoted to understanding how people negotiate and what methods are most likely to lead to an optimal solution. So what does science say about the most successful negotiations? And are the lawmakers negotiating to end the shutdown and prevent default doing anything right?

“Right now, they’re really reflecting what bad negotiators do, based on decades of research,” says Michele Gelfand, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and an editor of “The Handbook of Negotiation and Culture.”

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Gelfand says a large body of research shows that negotiators are heavily influenced by factors like the degree to which they view a problem as a “win-lose” situation and how accountable they feel to others who share their interests.

And, so far, that “win-lose” mentality is really interfering with a fiscal deal.

Researchers call that “win-lose” idea the “fixed-pie bias.” It’s the usually-erroneous idea that if one person in a negotiation wins, the other automatically loses. In other words, negotiators often believe that their gain is automatically the other side’s loss.

Study after study has shown that “fixed-pie” scenarios are much more likely to lead to bad agreements or outright stalemates.

Here’s a classic study that illustrates this idea: participants come to a lab and are asked to pretend to be either the seller or a buyer of a new car. They are told that the negotiation involves four categories: the financing of the car, the delivery time, the taxes and the warranty. They’re also told that they should view some of those categories as more important than the others.

But before the participants even begin the mock negotiation, they are asked a series of questions about how they’re viewing the problem – and how much they see each of the four categories as a “win-lose” situation for them.

As Leigh Thompson at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management showed, the answers to those questions create remarkably accurate predictions about how efficiently each pair of negotiators will reach an agreement that makes both parties happy. The more competitive a negotiator is about “winning” on every category, the less likely it is that the negotiation will succeed.

Dean Pruitt, a prolific researcher of negotiation and social psychology now at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, says it’s not impossible for negotiators who take a “win-lose” viewpoint to eventually figure out an agreement, but it’s a lot harder.

“With the fixed-pie bias, it’s possible to reach an agreement, and a compromise in which neither party bests the other, but there’s usually a real power struggle before you reach that point,” Pruitt says.

Obviously, the ongoing negotiations over the debt ceiling and the government shutdown are far more complex than two people pretending to fight over buying a car. But the research is useful to understanding why the most visible leaders in the negotiation – like President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner – are saying publicly that they won’t make certain concessions.

“When you have groups negotiating against each other as in this case, you can have negotiation at several levels,” Pruitt says. “At the official level, they’re holding firm on each side, and they act as if it’s a fixed pie, because they’re trying to make the other side back down. But then, hopefully, there are conversations going on behind the scenes that are seeking some middle ground, something both sides can agree to.”

There’s a problem there too, though.

Public ultimatums are making resolution of the debt ceiling debate more difficult too, argues Max Bazerman, a professor at Harvard Business School and an expert in negotiation.

“Drawing lines in the sand is generally not a particularly good strategy because it simply creates constraints,” Bazerman says, noting that both sides now have less flexibility for a creative long-term fiscal agreement. “They’ve restricted their ability to craft wise deals.”

But, he adds, the more issues that are added to the negotiations –in search of a so-called “grand bargain” – the better, because more moving parts mean more opportunities for compromise.

“In many cases you don’t want negotiations to be too complex,” Bazerman argues. “But the problem with simplicity in this context is that too many red lines have been drawn for each party to have any basis for success on any simple deal.”

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So what if lead negotiators manage to reach some kind of agreement in the Senate? Will the House buy into it too?

Plenty of political observers have said that Boehner is likely to have trouble selling any kind of compromise bill to conservatives in his caucus, so he might reject a deal.

There’s research that explains that phenomenon too, says Gelfand – and it’s one reason that getting a deal has taken so long.

“This is a classic case of coalitional dynamics,” says Gelfand. “The leader – Boehner, in this case – has a lot of accountability to a coalition in the House. And a lot of research shows that if a representative has a lot of accountability, that makes that representative more competitive in negotiations.”

Imagine a study that’s similar to the car negotiation, but with a twist: some of the participants are told that they will have to explain any deal that they reach to a third person who has the power to punish or reward them based on how good the deal is.

That kind of research shows that people tend to be much more reluctant to make concessions and more likely to reject offers if they feel “accountability” to a powerful third party. The tactics that “accountable” negotiators use also tend to be more contentious and include more threats, and – if they reach agreements – it tends to take longer to reach a deal.

Gelfand says those studies back up what plenty of political observers have said about Boehner’s ability to buck his conservative right flank.

“The more distant Boehner could become from these coalitions, to try to separate from them and be relieved from the pressure, the more likely he will be to reach an agreement,” she said.