Thursday, June 22, 2023

Don't Negotiate with Logic

Computer science and mathematicians often try to use logic to negotiate whether it be at a university or life in general. I've tried it myself and it doesn't usually work. Even if you have that (rare) perfect argument, remember Upton Sinclair's wordsIt is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

So make sure their salary depends on them understanding it. Or more to the point, in a world with limited resources, why it makes sense for them to help you. 

  1. Ideally go for the win-win. Why a certain decision helps the department/college/university as well as yourself. Asking for a small investment as a seed towards a large grant for example.
  2. How would the decision make you or your students more successful? The success of a department is measured by the success of the faculty and students. On the other hand, why would a different decision hold you and your students back.
Even outside the university, make your objectives in line with the objectives of the person you are negotiating with to lead to a better outcome.

Of course sometimes you are haggling over a price or a salary when it really is a zero-sum game. There it's good to know the BATNA, Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, for yourself and the other entity. In other words, if they aren't selling to you what other options do you and they have?

There are whole books written about negotiating strategies. Mostly it comes down to making it work for both parties. That's what matters, not the logic.


  1. It's a bit unclear what you mean by negotiate with logic. After all, crafting an argument that demonstrates giving you what you want would advance their interests sure seems like negotiating with logic to me.

    Is what you are saying more like: in disputes it's rarely helpful to try to craft a logical argument that the stated rules require they allow/prohibit what you want. Instead, negotiate by demonstrating that it's in their interest to give you what you want?

    I totally agree with that. Indeed, I'd go further and point out that if you aren't doing that then (with a narrow range of exceptions) you probably aren't actually making a compelling case that the real rules favor your position.

    Even the most codified rules (laws) fundamentally are designed to be applied by a human who is able to say "nice argument but no."...that's why you can't walk into SCOTUS and observe that computer programs and proofs are formally equivalent and since you can't patent mathematical facts therefore all Google's patents are invalid (indeed same argument applies to all inventions since they can be reduced to a claim about the application of laws of physics).

  2. Hah, I misinterpreted the title at first reading: "Don't Negotiate with (an abstract anthropomorphised entity named) Logic", as in, don't try and convince 'Logic' to bend its rules, it is unyielding!

    It made for a very confusing read until I backtracked and face-palmed...

    I blame the capital 'L'