What Goes Wrong When Talks Fail: Nonlinear Analysis Finds Vulnerabilities in Negotiations

Article excerpt

Peace talks can be a frustratingly precarious process. Often negotiations seem to be moving forward, then one side sabotages the process by turning to violence. A new way of simulating how groups make decisions combines social psychology and nonlinear mathematics, revealing how forces may unexpectedly conspire to send negotiations off the rails.

The approach captures the unpredictability of group decision making and might be used to foresee which members of a jury, legislature or corporate board will support a policy, or if consensus is even possible. It may also help explain how Burhanuddin Rabbani, a key figure in negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, ended up the victim of a suicide bomber in September 2011.

Many methods for assessing how negotiations unfold assume a linear, relatively predictable relationship between the group members' opinions, their influence on each other and the outcome of the negotiations. These methods can work well for small groups, said policy analyst Hilton Root of George Mason University in Arlington, Va. "But," he said, "there's a lot you can't do with them."

To capture the turns and twists that often occur in real-world negotiations, University of Washington physicist Michael Gabbay developed an approach that allows for a traditional linear discussion path but also incorporates nonlinear dynamics, where outcomes can be unpredictable and driven by a seemingly random variable, such as who gets to talk first.

Simulating the behavior of decision makers with this technique can suggest tactics--such as not having everyone talk to everyone at the same time--that might make reaching consensus easier, Gabbay reported December 6. …