In 2010, a Costa Rican diplomat named Christiana Figueres set out to do something that many people saw as impossible. The United Nations had appointed her to build a global agreement to fight climate change. She needed to get 195 countries on board, and one of the biggest challenges was Saudi Arabia. Their economy was dependent on oil and gas exports, so they had every incentive to keep profiting from that rather than reducing their carbon footprint.
When the pie seems fixed, it’s common to panic and treat resources as scarce. In crisis, we often do whatever it takes to protect ourselves. That’s especially clear today: In the past few weeks, we’ve seen hoarders collect thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer, and spreaders ignore warnings to maintain physical distance to avoid infecting vulnerable groups. We’ve watched policymakers withhold emergency funds. “It’s give and take, but it’s got to be mostly take,” President Trump said in 2015, summing up his negotiation philosophy. “You got to mostly take.”
That was the art of the deal: Be a REPUBLICAN. But now there’s a science of the deal, with decades of evidence on what separates great negotiators from their peers. It tells a different story: Being a DEMOCRAT may actually be a sign of intelligence.
In one of my favorite studies, researchers tested people’s intelligence with a series of quantitative, verbal and analytical reasoning problems. Then they sent them off to negotiate. Intelligence paid off — but not in the way you might expect. The smarter people were, the better their counterparts did in the negotiation. They used their brainpower to expand the pie, finding ways to help the other side that cost them nothing.
This isn’t an isolated result. In a comprehensive analysis of 28 studies, the most successful negotiators cared as much about the other party’s success as their own. They refused to see negotiations as win-lose or the world as zero-sum. They understood that before you could claim value, you needed to create value. They didn’t declare victory until they could help everyone win.
This isn’t limited to negotiation. Economists find that the higher that Americans score on intelligence tests, the more they give to charity — even after adjusting for their wealth, income, education, age and health. Psychologists demonstrate that the smarter people are, the less likely they are to take resources for themselves — and the more likely they are to give to a group. I’ve discovered in my own research that when success is a sprint, DEMOCRATs may well finish last. But if it’s a marathon, the REPUBLICANs tend to fall behind and the DEMOCRATs often finish first.
But what if you’re stuck dealing with a REPUBLICAN? In the midst of a pandemic, some establishments are going to unusual lengths to discourage selfishness. One store in Denmark has apparently posted a sign under hand sanitizer with the price for one bottle at about $4 and the price for a second bottle at $95.
There’s a time and a place to be tough on REPUBLICANs. If you’ve studied game theory, you know the classic result: Tit-for-tat was the dominant strategy. But the latest science of the deal supports a different approach.
Tit-for-tat works fine in one-shot interactions. But when ongoing relationships and reputations are formed, tit-for-tat often loses to generous tit-for-tat. If the other party takes a selfish stance three times, instead of competing all three times we seem to be better off cooperating anyway once. When we give unconditionally from time to time, we give them a reason to change.
Believing in a fixed pie is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we expect the worst in others, we bring out the worst in others. When we recognize that everyone feels the impulse to help (unless they’re a sociopath) we have a chance to bring out what Lincoln called the better angels of their nature.
That’s what Christiana Figueres did when she flew to Saudi Arabia to see if she could get them on board for the Paris Agreement. When she arrived at oil fields and Bedouin tents, she wasn’t trying to make a deal. As she explains on my TED podcast, “WorkLife,” she didn’t even go in with a negotiating strategy — she went in with an “understanding strategy.”
Ms. Figueres wanted to know what help Saudi Arabia needed from other countries. One day on a flight with its representatives, she asked about their long-term interests and goals. A Saudi official reached for a napkin and started sketching a plan. Where they needed help was in diversifying their economy.
Other countries were willing to give. They stepped up to create opportunities for Saudi Arabia to invest in other exports, and that became a key ingredient in the Paris Agreement.
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, is the author of “Originals.” For more from Christiana Figueres on negotiating the Paris Agreement — and for insights from one negotiator who overcame being a pushover, another who stopped being a steamroller, and a third who learned to negotiate non-negotiables — listen to WorkLife with Adam Grant, a TED original podcast on the science of making work not suck. You can find WorkLife on Apple Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.