Captain Kirk is Right When it Comes to Diplomacy

Many people have made light of Captain James "Alien Banger" Kirk, and his crotch-first approach to diplomacy. It turns out that he might have the right idea. Attraction very often helps us come to a peaceful solution during conflicts.

Driving the Other Guy Out

The early Star Trek series has occasionally been made the object of fun for its combination of liberal ideals and short-skirted ladies. It turns out that its major flaw was the lack of short-skirted men to go with the ladies. Otherwise, it had social science just right. The show's first major triumph of accuracy was its insistence of enforced diplomacy combined with only setting phasers on "stun." When it comes to working out a solution, communication is paramount, and threats are the worst possible idea.

Captain Kirk is Right When it Comes to Diplomacy

The seminal experiment that showed the importance of kind words and lack of force was the "trucking experiment" run by Morgan Deutsch and Robert Krauss. Volunteers for the experiment were asked to play a little game. They were the head of a trucking company, and they wanted to make money. They had two routes they could use to move product - one twisting route that lost them money, and one direct route that allowed them to make their deliveries and make a profit.

If they had been the only trucking company in town, that would be no problem, but they had competition. The competition, run by a hidden other volunteer, was on the other side of the road. The road was one lane, and only accessible through a gate on either end. They owned one gate. The competition owned the other. Obviously, it's in both company's interests to bargain with each other, keep the gates open, and coordinate to let the other trucking company through. Almost every time the volunteers shut the gates, refused to talk, and drove each other out of business.

Getting People to Talk

If Morgan and Krauss tried this out under only one set of conditions, they would come to pretty simplistic conclusions - people are stupid jerks. Fortunately, they ran a few variations on the experiment. On major variation was the removal of the gates from either side of the shorter road. They didn't always remove both gates. In one version of the experiment, they removed only one gate. One person had the ability to shut down the other person's profit, but overall, both companies did better than they did when both were able to block the road. Removal of the second gate, however, was the best condition. Without one person's power trip causing the other person to up the ante, both companies managed to make a profit.

Captain Kirk is Right When it Comes to Diplomacy

What else worked? Merely allowing people to talk wasn't enough. Even when given headsets, the participants in the experiment happily drove each other out of business. To get a better result, the experimenters had to go Organian on the volunteers. They started forcing people to talk. While they couldn't make the volunteers talk about compromise, they could prompt them, again and again, to talk about anything as long as they kept talking.

This didn't help under all conditions - people were as intractable as ever when it came to making threats as long as they both held the gates. But take away one person's gate, making the game no longer about mutually assured destruction, and the talking started making a difference. Although one party had the advantage over the other, when they started talking without the ability to make their interaction all about threats, they began working out a mutually helpful solution.

And Then There's Attraction

The trucking game is, in essence, a protracted version of the Prisoner's Dilemma. This is the famous problem in which two suspected criminals are put in different cells. The police aren't able to convict them on the main charge, but can get a lesser charge. Separately, the police offer each prisoner a bargain - turn on their partner and get away free. The prisoners can keep silent and get the lightest charge or one can betray the other and get away free while the other suffers, but if they both betray each other, they both lose. Making them truckers just lets them compete and lose, or cooperate and win, over a longer length of time.

In the original version of the Prisoner's Dilemma, neither prisoner is allowed to speak to the other. Scientists have modified it. As it turns out, communication helps there, too. People who like their fellow prisoner are less likely to snitch. Unsurprisingly, scientists went from studying what happened when pairs of prisoners liked each other to studying what happened when pairs of prisoners, as they say in junior high school, like-liked each other. The results were surprising.

First of all, scientists studied what happened when people played in male pairs, in female pairs, and in mixed pairs. They found that matched-sex couples played very differently, with female pairs opting for competition, and male pairs opting for cooperation. When the sexes mixed, those differences fell away, and there was no appreciable difference between how men and women played.

Captain Kirk is Right When it Comes to Diplomacy

They then took it the problem one step further, pairing up the volunteers with opposite-sex partners whose "physical attractiveness varied." (There are quite a few studies in which scientists deliberately use partners with "different levels of attractiveness." I have to wonder what it would be like for a lab assistant, or an actor, to be recruited and sorted on the basis of looks.) The men's choices didn't vary, but, as the scientists tactfully put it, "females would alter their choices on the basis of the social nature of the setting." It seems, at least according to one study, a woman's version of flirting is not leaving you to rot in prison, even though she totally could.

Which is where James T Kirk comes in. Star Trek was meant to express an ideal - peace and diplomacy, communication without threats, constant attempts at deescalation. It appears that these aren't just ideals but practical measures. But Star Trek had less lofty aims. It's a space-opera in which the captain's love life is as much a part of the plot as the space ship battles. Kirk, in particular, comes in for a lot of bad press, as a captain whose life gets horizontal in ways that have nothing to do with gravitational anomalies. But it appears that Star Trek has it right there, too. When it comes to making the best compromise under difficult circumstances, staying away from threats helps, keeping the lines of communication open helps, and a little twinkle in the eye certainly doesn't hurt.

[Via Studies of Interpersonal Bargaining, How to Avoid a Bad Bargain, Threats, Communication, and Bargaining, Cooperation and Optimal Responding in the Prisoner's Dilemma, Communication and Sex Effects in a Five-Person Prisoner's Dilemma Game, Sex Difference in Cooperation in the Prisoner's Dilemma Game.]