Comments: Negotiation and the rule of three favours

Ah yes. This prompts a very pleasant memory of grad school.

Jon Elster discusses the strategic performance of favors in
his "Social Norms and Economic Theory" (1989).

It is plausible that norms of reciprocity do, on the whole, have good consequences. Even in this case, however, there are counterexamples, since these norms can become the object of strategic manipulation. An extreme example of such ambiguous altruism is found in Colin Turnbull's description of gift and sacrifice in this society
among the miserable Ik of Uganda:

These are not expressions of the foolish belief that altruism is both possible and desirable: they are weapons, sharp and aggressive, which can be put to divers uses. But the purpose for which the gift is designed can be thwarted by the non-acceptance of it, and much Icien ingenuity goes into thwarting the would-be thwarter. The object, of course, is to build up a whole series of obligations so that in times of crisis you have a number of debts you can recall, and with luck one of them may be repaid. To this end, in the circumstances of Ik life, considerable sacrifice would be justified, to the very limits of the minimal survival level. But a sacrifice that can be rejected is useless, and so you have the odd phenomenon of these otherwise singularly self-interested people going out of their way to 'help' each other. In point of fact they are helping themselves and their help may very well be resented in the extreme, but it is done in such a way that it cannot be refused, for it has already been given. Someone, quite unasked, may hoe another's field in his absence, or rebuild his stockade, or join in the building of a house that could easily be done by the man and his wife alone. At one time I have seen so many men thatching a roof that the whole roof was in serious danger of collapsing, and the protests of the owner were of no avail. The work done was a debt incurred. It was another good reason for being wary of one's neighbors. Lokeléa always made himself unpopular by accepting such help and bv paying for it on the spot with food (which the cunning old fox knew they could not resist), which immediately negated the debt.

It's hard to overstate Elster's clarity as a writer, or his rigor and cleverness as a thinker.

Posted by Chris Walsh at February 2, 2006 04:05 PM

In a prior life, Anne once had to play the win/lose, win/win game when they sent her to advanced executive school (at the xerox executive training center near dullas airport that a lot of companies use). She played win/win until the last round and then played win/lose on the last round (nearly bringing some grown men to tears). Doesn't work as well in real life since there rarely is a "last" round.

Posted by Anne & Lynn Wheeler at February 3, 2006 11:29 AM


Some would argue that is ok because it is just a game. But sometimes game play in games spills over to real life. OTOH, grown men need to be taught a hard lesson from time to time...

(I wanted to mention in the post but couldn't find the spot - I'm slowly working on my manual for negotiation ... I've given up trying to teach people directly, it seems a very hard thing to do.)

Posted by Iang at February 3, 2006 11:36 AM
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