Avoiding Zero-sum Games, Wining in an Egoless Game

Ever since reading Free Prize Inside, I’ve been thinking about the “game strategy” that to “win,” you make your opponent think he’s won more than you. That is, when you’re collaborating (to use a less combative term) with someone to get something done, you want the other person to think they’re getting the better bargain.

To some extent, this means your goals have to be egoless: if your goal is to be seen as the victor, the one who got the best deal, this strategy won’t work. But, in most of this types of events, being visibly the victor has little to do with success.

An interview (by none other than P. J. O’Rourke) with Colin Powell in this month’s Atlantic touched on this line of thinking:

Powell described how zero-sum competition made little sense even within the insensible logic of mutually assured destruction. “Their target was different than ours?two absolutely asymmetrical target problems. But we had exactly the same number of missiles, almost.”

Soviet SS-20s and U.S. Pershing IIs were eventually retired, and Powell was on hand when one of each was presented to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. “The SS-20 was a big thing,” he said, “and the Pershing was small. It’s much more efficient, a better missile. My wife, Alma, is with me. She pays no attention to any of this military stuff. She’s only been a military wife for the past forty years. And she looks at it and she says, ‘How come theirs is bigger?’

“You always want your adversary to walk away thinking he prevails,” Powell said. “Not to the point he can boast about it. But if you prevail and he prevails, it’s a win?especially in a no-longer-zero-sum world, no longer just the United States versus the Soviet Union, but the whole West and international community against [here the Secretary gave a diplomatic, and apt, name to what opposes the West] the whole whatever-you-want-to-call-it. I’m considered the multilateralist. Multilateralism means finding areas of compromise. The ugliest form of it is ‘You scratch my back ?’ As we have discovered, you really need to have friends and partners, and they come with their own needs and their own desires, and you’ve got to scratch their needs and desires.”

“Adult-Male-Elephant Diplomacy”

(Though the title is a direct reference to a metaphoric story Powell tells, it’s even better as a punish metaphor for his role in the GOP.)