Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 7 March 2007

You Scratch My Back...

All humans, regardless of culture or other differences, appear to have certain common perspectives (or ‘constraints’) in dealing with the world. One relates to ‘reciprocal altruism’ or ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. It’s an instinctive strategy that lies at the heart of human collective endeavour from the building of the Egyptian pyramids and the atomic bomb to the International Criminal Court. And, it’s the basis for our urge to detect and punish cheats or free riders in our everyday lives.

Tit for Tat. Do unto others. Whatever we call it, mutual reciprocity is an urge with a deep basis in our nature in common with many other species, some as simple as bacteria and viruses. Primate behavioural expert Frans de Waal recently observed, “Humans and other animals share a heritage of economic tendencies – including cooperation, repayment of favours and resentment at being short-changed.”

So what? The key is the ability to discriminate against non-reciprocators by withholding future aid. Let’s consider that. A wide range of scientific evidence reveals Tit for Tat and other intuitive strategies can work great in a two person ‘Prisoners’ Dilemma’ situation. It even works well in a group of other people if we can keep track of their individual intentions, along with our past record of cooperation or defection with them. We have social brains, and they’re nicely adapted for just this kind of social exchange.

But multilateral negotiations are harder. They involve many different actors at the state and individual level. The United Nations has 190 or so member countries. It means hundreds of delegates may be involved in a negotiation (although, obviously, some matter much more, in practice, to the outcome than others). Hundreds – or even thousands – more people may exert influence or issue orders from capitols to their delegates, although invisible to most other negotiators at the seat of the negotiation.

It’s hard for negotiators to keep track of all of these relationships, even just the ones they consider significant. There’s also potential for individual negotiators to confuse reciprocity at the personal level with the broad balance of interests between their governments. This is a line that fades from the fuzzy to the invisible if negotiators aren’t aware that the potential for crossing it exists.

The upshot is that in multilateral negotiating situations, ‘nice but retaliatory’ strategies like Tit or Tat run into difficulty because it’s very difficult to discriminate against non-reciprocators.

John Borrie