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Saturday November 22, 2014

Meeting in the Middle: Why Political Compromise Can Be So Hard

Q&A
Monday October 14, 2013

Meeting in the Middle: Why Political Compromise Can Be So Hard

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Rutgers husband and wife team collaborate on a book about the history of cooperation
Media Contact:
Steve Manas
732-932-7084 x612

After years of denials by his predecessor, Iran’s new president acknowledged at the UN that the Holocaust, indeed, was a condemnable crime against humanity. Almost immediately, President Obama and Hassan Rouhani held a 15-minute phone chat, the first contact between leaders of the two nations in 34 years. Perhaps a hopeful sign of cooperation? Not so fast. Within days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped by the White House to caution against softening sanctions against the alleged nuclear wannabe and to remind who America’s BFF in the Middle East really is.

Meanwhile across town, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were playing their own game of hardball over funding Obamacare. Never mind the consequences for the American public: a pain-inflicting, partial shutdown of the federal government.

Cooperation, in Washington and elsewhere, is hard to come by, but two Rutgers professors – husband and wife team Lee F. Cronk, an evolutionary and cultural anthropologist, and Beth L. Leech, a political scientist, both in the School of Arts and Sciences – have collaborated to write, Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation (Princeton University Press). Rutgers Today asked the pair about a subject many take for granted – until cooperation is imperative and there is none to be found.

Beth Leech and Lee Cronk
Credit: F. Araga
Beth Leech and Lee Cronk
Rutgers Today: Why the title, Meeting at Grand Central?

L.C. and B.L.: The title comes from a famous experiment conducted by an economist named Thomas Schelling. He asked people in New Haven to imagine where they would meet a friend in New York City if they hadn’t agreed on a specific time or place. The majority said that they would go to Grand Central Terminal at noon. This has since become an iconic example of what Schelling called a focal point solution to a coordination problem. We gave our book that title to capture its fundamental goal: to give scholars from the social and evolutionary sciences who study cooperation a common set of concepts and vocabulary that would allow them to “meet at Grand Central” in an intellectual sense. Evolutionary scientists ask, “Why are we so cooperative?” Social scientists ask, “Why don’t we cooperate more than we do?”

Rutgers Today: Common sense seems to dictate that cooperation between or among individuals or groups requires a healthy dose of give-and-take. Yet oftentimes, what actually appears to occur is a healthy dose of game playing. Can you briefly describe several types of “games that people play”?  

L.C. and B.L.: Game theory is a useful tool because it helps us take the complexities of real-world situations and boil them down to their most basic elements. The two main types of games or problems that we focus on are collective action dilemmas and coordination problems. Collective action dilemmas involve conflicts of interests. Everybody would like the collective action to take place, but everyone would also like to spend as little as possible of their resources making it happen. This is also known as the “free rider problem.”

Solving these kinds of problems does indeed require some give-and-take. At least some of those involved need to be willing to step forward and pay a cost in order to get a benefit. In a pure coordination problem, however, everybody would benefit from coordinating their actions with everyone else. The reason it’s a problem is that they may not have the information they need to do so.

Some of the most interesting problems involve both coordination problems and conflicts of interest. The game of “Chicken,” which is one way to understand what’s happening in Washington right now, is a case in point. Imagine two cars heading toward each other at high speed, their drivers competing to show an audience which is the braver of the two. The driver who doesn’t swerve out of the way receives the highest reputational payoff. The driver who swerves gets a lower payoff. But if the two cars collide, they both get the lowest payoff of all: death. Republicans and Democrats in Washington have played this kind of game repeatedly.

Rutgers Today: Why do many of today’s politicians find cooperation so distasteful?

L.C. and B.L.: Politicians cooperate all of the time! Right now, however, they are choosing to cooperate only with their allies and with their most vocal constituents, rather than engaging in compromise with the other party.

Rutgers Today: As a husband-and-wife team, did you encounter any “unusual” or especially problematic issues as you researched and wrote your book? Would you do it again, and would the process be different?

L.C. and B.L: Marriage is an institution that developed in part to support the shared goal of successful childrearing, but as our book argues, it’s easier to use an existing institution to foster new cooperative ventures than it is to start from scratch. So being married actually helped us work better together.

Our writing method was simple. After we outlined the chapters, we wrote the first drafts of those about which we had the most expertise. Then we passed them back and forth, revising and rewriting until we were both satisfied with them. That system worked so well that we are considering writing another book on cooperation, this time pitched at a popular audience rather than a scholarly one. The idea would be to give people the tools they need to enhance cooperation in their own workplaces, families and other settings.

Media Contact:
Steve Manas
732-932-7084 x612
Your Source for University News