How To Use Republican Irrationality For Better Negotiations

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, October 4, 2013 10:11 EDT
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I was really impressed by a recent piece by Greta Christina for Free Inquiry asking if there’s a rational way to accept/use our own irrationality. Being irrational is simply a result of being human; many irrational thought processes are only really a problem when they’re, well, a problem. (I realize that’s a tautology. *cymbal crash*) All very interesting stuff about anticipating our irrational desires and making rational choices that make those desires work for us instead of against us, like enrolling in a gym in order to work out more.

But it also made me think about how it might help to work around other people’s irrationalities instead of trying to reason with them. Specifically, the Republicans, who are making their decisions based on a couple of known logical fallacies. Brian Beutler writes about one today:

But we also know that Boehner and other Republican leaders never wanted a government shutdown at all. They know a shutdown hurts people and that the political cost to them will likely be severe. But now they’re in it, they don’t think they can embarrass themselves by folding, and so they say a “clean” funding bill isn’t going to happen. It’s a monstrous application of the sunk cost fallacy.

He figures they will continue this during the unnecessary debt ceiling showdown they already have planned:

Republicans say shutting down the government is really bad. But they won’t reopen it unless they get some kind of Obamacare scalp from President Obama. So as bad as a shutdown is, it’s worse than the alternative of not shutting down services, furloughing hundreds of thousands of people, but not getting a unilateral concession, even a trivial one, from Obama.

The only way to rationalize the GOP’s parallel debt limit threats is with the same logic. Defaulting on the debt and tanking the economy would be terrible, Republican leaders agree, but worse would be to avoid another global recession and get nothing from Obama.

It is very difficult for people to take a stand or make an investment and, when it’s not going to pan out, cut their losses. For pompous, know-it-all asses that comprise roughly 100% of the Republican caucus, it’s basically impossible. It requires the humility of admitting you could have been wrong or that you don’t have the power to see into the future—and that kind of humility is anathema to a Republican politician in our day and age.

That’s why we’re seeing so much rationalization. We laugh and laugh to hear Republicans try to blame the shutdown on Democrats when they planned it and even have the votes to end it, if Boehner would let the vote go forward. We all laugh to hear Republicans run around making thin claims that this is the fault of the Democrats and everything bad happening is because of the Democrats, but what other choice do they have but to lie to others and probably themselves? The alternative is to admit this is their fault, which in turn requires admitting that they are throwing good money after bad, which in turn requires getting out while the getting is good. And the collective Republican egos on the Hill aren’t ready for that yet.

What all this means for Obama and Senate Democrats is hard to say. I read a lot about how to cope with your own irrationality, but how to cope with others is not something there’s a lot of material on. One thing that’s certain, however, is that Obama cannot give even a symbolic concession. On its surface, that would seem like the thing to do—they want a victory so they can save face, give it to them and everyone walks away. However, if you understand the sunk cost fallacy, you’ll know that it doesn’t work that way. If someone who is in that mindset gets some return on their investment, they often will feel more emboldened to hang in, hoping they can get full return on their investment.

In fact, that’s why gambling can be so addictive. You lose $100, but then you get $10 back. Do you walk away? In most cases, no. Intermittent rewards and how they work on the brain just make this whole phenomenon worse. As someone who got sucked into Candy Crush, I can tell you right now, it’s a demon on even the most determined rationalist to avoid the lure of intermittent rewards. It’s actually better to give in right away every time they act out than it is to say no sometimes and yes sometimes—that’s how strong the pull of intermittent rewards is. If a gambler won every time they played, they would actually lose interest a lot faster than someone who wins sometimes and loses sometimes. But the good news is that consistent “nos” are just as and probably more discouraging to someone in the gambling mindset that Republicans are in. So hopefully the Democrats can understand this and hold the line. It’s just psychology 101.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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