Do stubborn people win?

What’s the Big Idea?

Do stubborn people actually win? Maybe the reason they take such an aggressive approach every time is that it works, says Steven Pinker. The Harvard psychologist, known for his argument that human language is an evolutionary adaptation, is convinced that the best way to get what you want is to be stubborn and even irrational.

What’s the Significance?

This counter-intuitive advice is based on the observation that when you’re perceived as having nothing to lose, your opponent will be more likely to try to win you over. The same is true if you convince the person you’re negotiating with that you lack the control to give any leeway. For example, next time you’re buying a car, try telling the dealer that you would love to, but your bank won’t loan you more than $10,000, or $20,000 (the price you want to pay). Setting limits makes the dealer more likely to come down to your price, says Pinker.

“Humans do things that seem to be irrationally stubborn,” he explains. “They vow undying devotion to their friends.  They fight a duel or retaliate if they’re insulted…This is an example showing that it may not be irrational in some spheres of human life to be a hothead.  The hothead is the winner.”

Pinker was influenced in his thinking by a nuclear strategist, Thomas Schelling, who wrote the The Strategy of Conflict, a Machiavellian treatise on bargaining and human behavior (Schelling worked on the Marshall Plan and in the White House in the 1940’s-50’s).

The one problem with the approach, of course, is that someone may call your bluff. This means you should only use it, says Pinker, when you’re comfortable following through, or walking away from the car, to continue with the earlier example. “They can’t call your bluff if it isn’t a bluff,” he explains. “There’s often game theory.  No psychologist ever thought that up; but it might offer an explanation as to why so many of our emotions seem to be passionate and irrational.  There may be a method behind the madness, and it took someone – not a psychologist, I think – to unlock the mystery of human irrationality and passion.”

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