The Fairest Bargain of All

Think you have a better sense of fairness than the average politician? A recent experiment out of UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (now School of Global Policy and Strategy) may prove you wrong.

The study by David Victor and colleagues is the first to conduct laboratory bargaining experiments with people who make real-world decisions on the international stage. Participants in the study included former members of the U.S. House of Representatives, top officials in the U.S. cabinet and other government agencies, as well as top strategists at major U.S. corporations.

Subjects were asked to play a simple bargaining game in which two players have to divide a fixed prize. A proposer makes an offer for how to divide the prize, and a responder then decides whether to accept or reject it. If the offer is accepted, both players divide the prize as agreed. If it is rejected, both players receive nothing.

Victor and his colleagues showed that experienced decision-makers were significantly less likely to accept low, unfair offers than other subjects. They also tended to make higher offers when they were in the proposer role, suggesting real-world diplomats and policymakers may care even more about fairness than the general population. In addition, the more experience they have, the more they seem to care about striking a fair bargain.

“Our findings suggest that fair offers would make all of humanity better off,” says Victor. “And they suggest that top policymakers, such as senior diplomats, know this at some level. It might just be easier to solve the world’s problems than many experts think.”