Teaching to Compromise

by Martin Sustrik3 min read7th Mar 20215 comments

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World ModelingWorld Optimization
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I was reading interview with Giscard d'Estaing about drafting of European Constitution and a this section stood out:

The session which was not good was the Youth Convention. It’s bizarre, it’s strange. Firstly, it was not young in spirit. [Laughs] That was what they’d been chosen for. It consisted of squabbles between bodies about holding posts. They spent their time discussing the role they would attribute to one another in the system. And very little came out of it. This made me rather worried, not about the young people of Europe, because there were [only] 105 of them, but about how representative the systems were. Because I said to myself that what was there wasn’t ‘youth’, for youth is much freer, much more imaginative, it takes an interest in two or three things, and if it talks about them, it speaks with feeling. So there was a kind of doubt about whether or not young people were represented by organisational systems.

That came as a surprise but giving it two more seconds of thought, it should hardly be surprising. Young people are much more likely to view world in simplified, black-and-white way. They are more likely to support extreme positions, be it communism, fascism or yet something else. The countries with young populations are more likely to engage in war. Therefore, one should not expect young people to fare too well in an endeavor - such as drafting a constitution - that requires subtle compromises.

That, in turn, made me think about how the art of compromise is taught to children. It's definitely not taught as part of the curriculum. Neither it's clear whether that's even possible. In the past one learned to compromise by having siblings and by having to live with them, sharing the room and sharing to toys. Nowadays, when one child per family is the norm, this learning opportunity doesn't exist any more. Parents aren't kid's equals and so compromising with them doesn't count. At the same time, society getting more wealthy is not conductive to learning to compromise. If some other kid has a toy you are interested in, you are not going to haggle about it. You just ask your parents to buy you the same toy.

Then I thought of the culture: We learn from fairy tales. We learn from books. We learn from movies.

However, the books, where, in the grand finale, Gandalf strikes a clever compromise with Sauron are in short supply.

Quite the opposite, most of the books and movies seem to teach perseverance, being true to your ideals and never backing down. In other words, they teach you to never compromise.

And while I am not able to think of a children's book where a compromise would be depicted in a positive light (could it be that a compromise is just aesthetically unappealing?) even teaching that world is never black and white and that never backing down makes you an idiot would be useful. Here's what I am going to do: When my son gets to the age when he finishes The Lord of the Rings, I'll point him to The Last Ringbearer.

The story is based on the saying that the history is written by the victors. It retells the story of the War of the Ring from the perspective of Mordor.

Mordor is a country in early stages of industrial revolution, where the mosaic of ethnic groups, such as Orcs and Trolls, are slowly entering the age of enlightenment. Sadly, the country is invaded and massacred by barbaric hosts from the west led be certain Aragorn, son of Arathorn and a warmonger, a shadowy figure known as Gandalf.

The book is translated into several languages and if you haven't read it yet, enjoy!

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Compromise s the realm of actually getting things done. The less you are willing to compromise over, the less you will get done. Thus, if we teach purity, we have to teach the immorality of usefulness.

It seems to me that compromise isn't actually what you're talking about here. An individual can have strongly black-and-white and extreme positions on an issue and still be good at making compromises. When a rational agent agrees to compromise, this just implies that the agent sees the path of compromise as the most likely to achieve their goals. 

For example, let's say that Adam slightly values apples (U = 1) and strongly values bananas (U = 2), while Stacy slightly values bananas (U=1) and strongly values apples (U=2). Assume these are their only values, and that they know each other's values. If Adam and Stacy both have five apples and five bananas, a dialogue between them might look like this: 

Adam: Stacy, give me your apples and bananas. (This is Adam's ideal outcome. If Stacy agrees, he will get 30 units of utility. 

Stacy: No, I will not. (If the conversation ends here, both Adam and Stacy leave without a change in net value.)

Adam: I know that you like apples. I will give you five apples if you give me five bananas. (This is the compromise. Adam will not gain as much utility as an absolute victory, but he will still have a net 10 increase in utility.)

Stacy: I accept this deal. (Stacy could haggle, but I don't want to overcomplicate this. She gets a net 10 increase in utility from the trade.)

In this example, Adam's values are still simple and polarized, he never considers "stacy having apples" to have any value whatsoever. Adam may absolutely loathe giving up his apples, but not as much as he benefits from getting those sweet sweet bananas. If Adam had taken a stubborn position and refused to compromise (assuming Stacy is equally stubborn) then he would not have gained any utility at all, making it the irrational choice. It has nothing to do with how nuanced his views on bananas and apples are. 

It's important to try to view situations from many points of view, yes, and understanding the values of your opponent can be very useful for negotiation. But once you have, after careful consideration, decided what your own values are, it is rational to seek to fulfill them as much as possible. The optimal route is often compromise, and for that reason I agree that people should be taught how to negotiate for mutual benefit, but I think that being open to compromise is a wholly separate issue from how much conviction or passion one has for their own values and goals. 

Negotiation classes take as a given that the result might be a compromise, but also explain win-win, lose-lose, and other possible resolutions.