Talks and action bias

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

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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6 Responses to Talks and action bias

  1. Ashwini 15th July 2010 at 16:16 #

    Very interesting analogy. I would like to know your views on how much impact public opinion has on this political rationality. Although, it can be loosely said that the Pakistani action bias is a function of its public opinion, here in India I tend to believe that the majority doesn’t care about Pakistan and would prefer India following the optimal strategy of staying put rather than diving at every opportunity.

  2. Jai_C 16th July 2010 at 09:35 #

    Home secy’s public remarks were unhelpful Nitin. The same message could have been (must have been in fact) conveyed privately. From the Paki PoV, the GoI officer GK Pillai should have been more under GoI control than loose cannon Saeed is under Pakistani Govt control.

    I’ve been opposed to the talks BTW but if we are to talk, we could give them a chance to pursue ISI involvement etc. privately. The public lambasting could have been saved for when (as is usually the case) nothing is done about it.

    I’m reasonably sure that Uncleji is being updated anyway on these concerns. Uncleji knows from experience that his intel was leaked out to Taliban when he coordinated with Pakistani military in planning his ops. He has no reason to disbelieve us.


  3. SumneNeeve 16th July 2010 at 09:37 #

    Jai C said:
    From the Paki PoV, the GoI officer GK Pillai should have been more under GoI control than loose cannon Saeed is under Pakistani Govt control.

    Wah Wah, Nice equal equal.

  4. Jai_C 16th July 2010 at 10:17 #

    This comment is more relevant to the newer post above about changing channels but continuing here to keep thread:

    I felt the same way, that Mr.Qureishi was going weird by replying to Saeed with GK Pillai… he could have conveyed irritation with Pillai’s statement while also committing to act against Saeed. Nitin made a good point that they are powerless to actually do anything. In some ways it seems more likely that we could have had agreement with Mush and the military than with these guys.

    not equating Saeed with Pillai :-) For all I care these talks could have NOT taken place at all. I didnt want ANY talks until meaningful prosecution of the 26/11 accused is on with no time-wasting tactics.



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