July 15, 2010diplomacyForeign AffairsIndiaPakistanSecurity

Talks and action bias

Why India-Pakistan talks’ are like penalty kicks in football

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

In a study published in 2009, Michael Bar-Eli, Ofer H Azar, and Yotam Lurie found that when it came to penalty kicks in football, the optimal strategy for the goalkeeper was to stay put (and not dive in either direction). For the kicker, the optimal strategy was to target the upper third of the goal. Yet, in the matches they analysed, goalkeepers almost always dived and kickers did not consistently aim at the upper-third.

The researchers attribute this to action bias.” Goalkeepers dive because it is easier to be seen as trying and failing. Kickers would rather be seen as having been stopped by the goalkeeper rather than having missed the goal entirely. Mr Bar-Eli & Co propose that such decision makers’ behavior be reconceived as socially rational,’ in the sense that their social environment seems to be incorporated into their utility functions.” [linkthanks Harsh Gupta]

Why are we discussing football? Well, because the behaviour of governments of India and Pakistan when it comes to bilateral relations is not unlike that of the footballers during a penalty kick.

Like the goalkeeper, the Indian government is better off staying still—focusing on liberalising the economy, accumulating power and engaging in robust counter-terrorism. Yet, New Delhi dives spectacularly into summits, composite talks and joint mechanisms, that actually don’t really make a difference. They do create an appearance that the Indian government is actually doing something about Pakistan.

Like the kicker, the Pakistani government is better off aiming at the upper-third—deradicalising its own society, dismantling the military-jihadi complex and otherwise stop burning down its own house. Yet, Islamabad kicks the ball into the India’s hands—finding reasons to blame India for Kashmir, the Indus waters, Balochistan and Afghanistan (actually detailed in the form of a wish-list submitted to Washington).

We propose that decision makers’ behavior be reconceived as politically rational,’ in the sense that their political environment seems to be incorporated into their utility functions.

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