Cognitive Psychology

Trump’s Negotiating Strategy: Cheating Defector

treaty_of_portsmouthTrump fancies himself a negotiator! The best negotiator! Very tough! He even wrote a book about it, The Art of the Deal. In the past week or so, he’s boasted of his negotiating skills, and how well it would pay off when he’s president when dealing with a wide variety of issues and countries. He’s boasted about his finesse in his meeting with Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and that Peña Nieto will pay for the wall, he just doesn’t know it! Ha ha! Can’t get blood from a turnip, can ya Trump? He claims that he will re-negotiate all of our trade deals so that we are advantaged. But, the thing that stood out for me during the last week was his remarks on how he would’ve handled the Iran negotiations that resulted in the release of our hostages, the restitution of frozen Iranian funds, and the nuclear deal.

“We need to say: ‘We have to have the hostages back.’ We leave the room, and you double up the sanctions. Within 48 hours, you’ll have the hostages back,” he said.

Donald Trump

That worked when I was haggling over souvenirs in a Southeast Asia, and I was sure that no one would sell at a loss, but there are many many reasons why such a strategy won’t work when negotiating complex international deals with multiple representatives of multiple countries. It’s laughable on its face, but that doesn’t make for a very interesting blog post if you’re a pedantic SOB like me.

Trump’s negotiating tactics fit the definition of what the late Linda Mealy described as cheating defection. She was writing about the Prisoner’s Dilemma to illustrate her proposition that sociopaths (in her use, the equivalent of psychopath) evolved to use social deception and lead a life of manipulative and predatory social interactions. Given my posts on psychopaths, narcissists, and trolls, there may be a blog post in there some where.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game theory scenario in which two people must decide on an action separately but simultaneously knowing that the other person’s decision will have a substantial effect on them and vice versa. The original dilemma imagined two people suspected of committing a crime together, so the prisoners are separated and questioned. There are three possible outcomes:

  • both prisoners defect and rat on the other, both receive a moderate sentence
  • one prisoner defects and rats on the other, and the other stays loyal and says nothing, the defector goes free and the loyalist gets a harsh sentence
  • both prisoners stay loyal to one another, both receive a light sentence

What is the best solution? Each prisoner has two choices: defect or stay loyal. The outcomes for each choice can be listed:


  • the other prisoner defects: moderate sentence
  • the other prisoner remains loyal: no sentence


  • the other prisoner defects: severe sentence
  • the other prisoner remains loyal: light sentence

The temptation is to defect because it either results in a moderate sentence (both prisoners take the deal) or no sentence (the other prisoner is a sucker and remains loyal). However, if both prisoners remain loyal to each other, they both get a light sentence. The risk is that your partner in crime will defect saddling the other with the harsh sentence.

The Cheating Defector

trustfallYour choice depends on your prediction of what your partner will do. How much do you trust the other person to stay loyal and say nothing? If you think the other person will defect and rat you out, you need to do the same to protect yourself from that harsh sentence.

The cheating defector is the person who signals loyalty but then defects to maximize their own gain. It is easy for me to imagine Trump doing just that playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma and thinking himself a clever boy. But, it also explains why he is no longer even a minor player in the Manhattan real estate world as he once was and finds it difficult to get credit from banks… or so I’ve heard. Trump’s brand in business has become synonymous with stiffing creditors and service providers.

His skills are on full display in his campaign. Reported by the Washington Post, Trump’s policy shop collapsed because the promised checks never arrived. He wouldn’t pay his policy wonks just like he won’t the Freedom Kids who have filed a lawsuit against Trump over non-payment of a measly — for a billionaire — $2,500.00! And that’s just a travel stipend! What a monster!

Complex international negotiations of the type necessary for the Iran nuclear deal involve a multitude of countries with a plethora of interests some of them conflicting with each other. To be successful, you must be trustworthy. Both your allies and opponents need to be confident that you’ll do what you say you’re going to do.


How many times has Trump touted his unpredictableness? How can you trust someone who is unpredictable? The Prisoner’s Dilemma illustrates the necessity of trustworthiness. Frequently, the studies include two players playing many rounds of decisions or a round-robin of players going many rounds.

the-prisoners-dilemma-17-638The game nearly always starts with the players being loyal to each other and each receiving the minimal sentences. Eventually, one of them succumbs to the temptation of getting FREEDOM! and rats out the other. This is when the game begins to unravel as each then begins defecting.

What does this tell us about Trump as a negotiator of treaties, coalitions, and foreign agreements? In a speech earlier in the week, Trump described his strategy of negotiating with Iran. He would’ve insisted that Iran release the hostages before proceeding. If they refused, he would leave and double the sanctions. For this strategy to work, he has to be able to double the sanctions. He might could get the Congress to do so, but sanctions by the US alone won’t make much of a difference to a country that has been under sanctions from varying numbers of countries since 1979. He probably couldn’t get other countries to go along with him on increasing sanctions. Carly fucking Fiorina — remember her? I didn’t think so — sold them stuff illegally, and lots more business people — Trump is supposed to understand business, but I doubt it — couldn’t resist the temptation to violate the sanctions for big bucks. Empty threats aren’t addressed by the Prisoner’s Dilemma; however, consistency and predictability are.

With allies, you cannot afford to rat them out and defect. They’ll do the same to you. Right now, Congress has sent a bill to President Obama allowing US citizens to sue Saudi Arabia for damages over 9/11. The Saud’s response? They’ll sell their $750 BILLION in US assets. Yeah, our allies can’t afford to rat us out because we are the world’s super power and other shit, but, you know what, we need out allies, too. The United Fucking States of Stupid doesn’t need allies, though.

To keep Iran at the table, you cannot rat them out, either. If you talk to experienced negotiators like Bill Richardson, you hear them say things like, we need to build trust. To hear President Obama and other diplomats tell it, many government representatives are asking them if Trump is trustworthy!

Trump’s negotiating style by his own admission is cheating defector, meaning that he’s willing to sell out his partners and opponents alike. That’s nuts.


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