Donald Trump and Paul Ryan—a Prisoner’s Dilemma - Staying w/Conflict - Election Edition 2016

Donald Trump and Paul Ryan: a Prisoner’s Dilemma - By Bernie Mayer

Wouldn’t it have been fun to be a fly on the wall in the meeting between Donald Trump and Paul Ryan?  We can try to imagine the dialogue, but it was likely stiff, formulaic, and without much substance. I wonder what their body language revealed? Whatever they really thought, this was clearly a meeting that was about putting out a “make nice” message.

However, we don’t have to rely on our imagination to understand the nature of their negotiation dance.  Their statements (and tweets) are revealing enough.  What they demonstrate is an interchange that is a variation of a Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD).  PD is a classic game that simulates conflicts that have both a distributive (win-lose) and integrative (win-win) dimension—which is to say, virtually all conflicts. 

A quick primer on PD  (skip if you are familiar with it): 

Assume you have a choice of sending either a cooperative or competitive message to an adversary - and they have the option of sending either of those to you. 

The outcome (your score) in this exchange depends on the combination of messages sent by both of you.  In a classic PD, the scoring works like this:

  • If you both send cooperative messages, you both do reasonably well
  • If you both send competitive messages, you both do poorly
  • But if you send a competitive message and receive a cooperative message, you will do very well (much better than if you both cooperate) and your opponent will do very poorly (much worse than if you both compete)—and vice versa.

This means that on any single round, each player will do better if they compete than if they cooperate – there is therefore a built-in temptation to compete. But over time, if both parties give in to this temptation, the results for everyone are very bad.

So the negotiation challenge in many real life situations (think of the arms race, international negotiations as with Iran or in the Middle East, or divorce negotiations about child support and parenting arrangements) is how to motivate the other side to cooperate with you, and to take the long view.

If you are interested, a fuller explanation of the PD you may view this video:


Or read the chapter on Cooperation and Competition in The Conflict Paradox.

OK, back to Ryan and Trump.  Lets look at what they have said about each other.

Ryan on Trump:

“If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. … This is fundamental. And if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this.” (March 1, 2016)

“I’m just not ready to do that [back Trump] at this point. I’m not there right now. And I hope to, though, and I want to. But I think what is required is that we unify the party. And I think the bulk of the burden on unifying the party will have to come from our presumptive nominee.”  (CNN interview, May 5, 2016).

“Look, it’s no secret that Donald Trump and I have had our differences. We talked about those differences today. We are now planting the seeds to get ourselves unified.  I was very encouraged with this meeting, but this is a process. It takes a little time [meaning he was not yet ready to endorse Trump].” He went on to say that Trump is a ”warm and genuine person with a very good personality.”

(to reporters after meeting with Trump on May 12, 2016).

Trump on Ryan

“I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him and if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price.” (Responding to Ryan’s warning about playing to racism, March 1).

“I am not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda,” (after Ryan’s CNN interview on May 6, 2016)

“I have a lot of respect for Paul Ryan. If we make a deal, that will be great. And if we don’t, we will trudge forward like I have been doing, and winning, you know, all the time.”  (May 11, 2016)

 We had a "very, very good meeting…I think Paul felt the same way and everybody else did also."  (on meeting with Paul Ryan on May 12  2016)

Each of these statements can be seen as an exchange in a Prisoner’s Dilemma in which there are competitive, cooperative, and also mixed (a little competitive, a little co-operative) messages being given.  Each can be understood in terms of the benefits Trump and Ryan seek to gain from the exchange, and the losses they risk. We can characterize these statements as if they are rounds in an ongoing PD type of exchange.

Round One

As Trump appears to secure the nomination, he poses a threat to Ryan both on ideological grounds and also in terms of damage to the unity of the Republican Party. At this point, Ryan makes a very strong statement indicating that Trump is out of bounds in his statements about minorities.  This is a clearly competitive message.

Trump responds with a competitive message threatening unspecific consequences to Ryan.   They are now in a lose-lose (competitive-competitive) downward spiral.

Round Two

It’s getting worse.  Now Ryan refuses to endorse Trump, and Trump says he is not going to support Ryan’s agenda.  At the same time Trump suggests he might not accept Ryan as chair of the Republican National Convention (the traditional role for the Speaker of the House from one’s own party).  Ryan responds in effect: “fine, if you don’t want me to chair, I will be happy to step aside.”

If they continue along this way, both are going to get hurt.  Trump will further alienate a significant element of the Republican Party, making it very hard to disguise the disunity in the party.  Ryan will hurt his standing with Trump supporters, a group that may be critical to him as he pursues his agenda as Speaker, and even more so as he positions himself for a presidential campaign in the future.

What do we know from PD about how to break out of this cycle?

We know that what doesn’t work is to simply cooperate in the face of unrelenting competitive behavior. 

If, for example, Trump were to have said—“ok then, I will be nicer about people of color and I will adhere more closely to the conservative agenda” without some reciprocal action from Ryan, then Trump would seem weak and malleable which would undercut the persona that he has cultivated. 

If Ryan were to have said, “ok then, you are the nominee, I will heartily support you” (as other Republican leaders have  essentially done), he would have been seen as unprincipled and would be associated with Trump’s positions and bullying style. Ryan has built his reputation on being reasonable and principled (whether or not you agree with his very conservative principles).

What would also not have worked would have been for either to double down on the competition or to up the ante. 

For example, if Ryan announced that he would not attend the Republican convention in July the news would be all about the disunity in the party.  This probably would have hurt Trump more than Ryan, but it would also have further alienated Trump’s supporters from Ryan and the Party.

Instead, each man made statements that indicated the potential to cooperate but a willingness to compete as well. 

Trump says (in effect) “Make a deal or I am will be fine going on without you.”

Ryan says—“I want to be supportive, but we have work to do first.”

Alternative strategies

Trump could have responded to Ryan with a cooperative statement, e.g.  “I appreciate Speaker Ryan’s openness about his concerns, and I look forward to discussing our points of agreement and disagreement.”  Or he could have made a competitive statement—given Trump’s mastery of these, the possibilities seem endless but for example “What do you expect from a loser who was part of the team that took the Republican’s down to defeat in an election they should have won?” 

Instead, and typical of Trump, he kind of did all of the above.  He threatened Ryan (we may go after him), he offered cooperation (he said he wanted Ryan to stay as Convention Chair), and he sent a mixed message (“I have a lot of respect for Paul Ryan. If we make a deal, that will be great. And if we don’t, we will trudge forward like I have been doing, and winning, you know, all the time.”)

Subsequent to their meeting last week, Ryan and Trump both made statements that were more cooperative in nature, but also only up to a point.  They are gradually stepping towards a more collaborative stance, but keeping a retreat to competition open—thereby motivating the other side to continue to cooperate.

Tit-for-tat: good advice for Ryan and Trump?

The optimum strategy suggested in a study of computer simulations of The Prisoner’s Dilemma[1] conducted by Robert Axelrod is called “tit for tat” (T4T) which always starts with a cooperative move and then always mirrors the move that the other player made on the previous exchange.  So if one player cooperates on the previous exchange, T4T responds in kind on the next—and similarly if the player competes. 

This is more or less the strategy followed by Trump and Ryan with the exception that their opening moves were mixed or competitive.  Of course, in real life it is never so clear when the first move really occurs. 

Why does T4T work?  According to Axelrod, there are four basic reasons:

  • It’s nice. T4T never competes first.  Of course, this is not the approach that either Trump or Ryan took. However, if we ask how one can turn a negative interaction into something better, then we can see they each took at least a step in that direction.
  • It’s provocable.  If the other party competes, T4T will respond in kind or else there is no motivation for the other side to modify its competitive behavior.  Trump is a master of provocability as his attacks on “Lyin’ Ted Cruz”, “Low Energy” Jeb Bush, “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, or “Goofy” Elizabeth Warren have shown.  Ryan is more nuanced in his provocability—but provocable he still is.  He is the one who said he is “not ready” to support Trump and who roundly criticized him for his racist policy suggestions. The trick with provocability is scale—too little a consequence and there is no motivation for others to change; too big harsh a response and it makes it very hard to walk things back to a more cooperative stance.
  • It’s forgiving.  Once a formerly competitive counterpart starts to cooperate, T4T responds in kind and does  not to remain stuck in past grievances.  At this, both seem pretty adept. Trump might go overboard on the provocable front, but he readily accepts overtures to make peace.  Of course, he quickly reverts to his attack mode as well.  Ryan has also moved off his most competitive statements, but more gradually.  It’s tempting to suggest that Trump is easily provoked and quick to forgive because for him, it is a matter of deal making, not principle - whereas Ryan is acting more out of principles. But this oversimplifies the interchange.  More to the point is that Trump seems to be playing a shorter term game—focused entirely on this election, whereas Ryan is taking a longer term view—looking at the future direction of the Republican Party and his long term prospects as a presidential candidate.
  • It is simple. It’s clear what the strategy is—in the absence of clarity and transparency, all moves in conflict will be interpreted as competitive.  Here too, Trump is pretty out front in his approach. He seems to say just what he is thinking, all the time. Ryan’s approach is more nuanced, but also fairly forthright. 

This interchange is not over. In fact it could go on for years, and most certainly throughout the election season.  Ryan will likely provide some superficial support for Trump, but essentially sit out the election or focus entirely on Congressional candidates.  Trump might accept superficial support, or up his request for commitment and engagement. 

It will be interesting to watch and see how they handle this ongoing negotiation.

[1] Axelrod, R. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


This blog post is part of the Staying w/Conflict - Election Edition 2016 series. Please check out the entire series by visiting the series homepage:

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