We all know congressional negotiators are trying to balance party and ideology, principle and pragmatism. But negotiators are people, too, and psychology has some useful things to say about the ongoing debt-ceiling standoff. Here are some key ideas to keep in mind.
CHOICES: Behavioral economists find that people tend to make much better decisions about their future selves, rather than their present selves. Ask the alcoholic whether he is ready to give up booze next year and he'll find it easy to say yes. Ask him right now to walk by the bar and he'll balk. The same phenomenon shows up all the time for people who aren't alcoholics.
We can forsake dessert a year from now and we can decide to become better savers a year from now, but right now, we grab tasty bites from the dessert tray and spend like there's no tomorrow. The same principle applies to the budget standoff.
Asking Congress to think about what the shape of budget cuts should be in the future will likely yield a more productive conversation, where legislators aren't biased as much by current threats and temptations, says Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago economist, and the author of Nudge. "Congress would be better off spending a week dancing the hokey-pokey than debating the debt limit."
DEADLINES: At the same time, it's useful to have deadlines. If we told Congress to fix the budget deficit two years from now, they have no immediate incentive to act. Thaler suggests that one way to get Congress to act is to take advantage of the human tendency to pay undue importance to current threats and temptations.
"Suppose that we say that if the budget isn't reduced, Congress isn't paid anymore," he said. "Or worse yet, suppose they lose their parking spots if the deficit isn't reduced two years from now. All of a sudden you're going to see all kinds of self control adopted."
THE NEGOTIATING TABLE: Who sits around the negotiating table can make a big difference to how negotiations turn out. Psychologists have found that when groups are predominantly male, individuals tend to act in increasingly aggressive ways. They take bigger risks. They show off.
"Any place in which there are more men than women, the men are becoming more aggressive with each other and are competing with each other to attract women," says Vladas Griskevicius, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota.
Griskevicius has found that cities in which men outnumber women have the highest amount of consumer debt — the result, he believes, of men buying expensive stuff to show off. Most of us don't think the same dynamics affect professional settings, but Griskevicius finds in experiments that when men are surrounded by other men, their behavior changes without their awareness.