Any working relationship, be it romantic, friendship- or business-related, implies mutual trust, doesn’t it? Indeed, any successful cooperation requires trust as well. Usually, the more we know people, the more we trust them, which is probably why cooperating with familiar people is easier than with strangers. Consider the prisoner’s dilemma, one of the most famous examples analyzed in game theory. As per the dilemma, there are two prisoners, who face the same choice: if both remain silent about the crime, they both get sentenced to just one year in prison; if one of them confesses, but the other remains silent, the one, who confessed walks away free, and the other one serves three years in prison; if both confess, they both serve two years in prison. So, the question is, whether to cooperate (both remain silent) and serve a reduced period, or to betray the other, risking a higher sentence, but also gambling for a chance to walk away free. In other words, to cooperate or not, that is the question. We can assume that in the case of a trusting relationship between the two, cooperation is more likely than betrayal. Yet, what happens if a trustworthy relationship is not established yet? What if we face the prisoner’s dilemma with people that we are not that familiar yet? Do we cooperate then?
Quite unlikely. Have you ever terminated a relationship of any kind just to avoid being ‘wounded’? For example, have you ever cancelled a business deal, as you were doubting your partner’s trustworthiness and expected them to cancel on you soon? Have you ever ‘attacked’ first, sensing that you might be attacked yourself soon? All of these examples can be called preemptive strikes, or examples of defensive aggression people tend to engage in under the circumstance of uncertainty and perceived threat. As commonly assumed, fear is the primary instigator of such defensive aggression.
Thinking about the prisoner’s dilemma, cooperation and defensive aggression, I couldn’t help picturing Trump’s recent decision on the climate deal and his relevant speech. Wasn’t he expecting others to take advantage of the U.S. by making Americans to reduce emissions, while not keeping to the promises themselves? Hence, wasn’t it logical for Mr. Trump to strike first while fearing the strikes of others?!
Exploring the social behavior of defensive aggression, organizational behaviour professor Nir Halevy of Stanford Graduate School of Business, concluded that although fear is involved in the motivation for preemptive strikes, there is much more to the story. In a series of experiments professor Halevy explored a broader range of emotions and found that hope, more specifically lack thereof, is an even more important part of the puzzle than fear. As Halevy argues, ‘the lack of hope is actually a more robust, more persistent predictor of defensive aggression (than fear)’, and he suggests that ‘if we can find ways to increase hope, maybe we can decrease defensive aggression’.
This is an interesting finding, as contrary to common efforts of decreasing fear, it suggests to rather increase levels of hope. Hope is a positive emotion, which coexists with fear, and instilling hope seems to be more of a doable task than getting rid of fear. As Halevy says, there are a lot of things that people can do to instill hope in one another about the future, such as saying and confirming that we’re a team, or that we have a shared vision. Given the current uncertainties surrounding global affairs and global business, it seems natural that many would rather fall for defensive aggression. Yet, what we all need is cooperation, where the idea of hope seems especially relevant to me. We might not get rid of fear towards immigrants, or about losing jobs, or related to increased global market competition, but we could try to instill more hope into these aspects… hope about moving into the right direction, hope about enriching diversity, hope about greater and more fair advantages of globalization. Hope might just keep us away from preemptive strikes, which tend to ruin the ‘game’ for everyone.