Win-Win Means Win-Lose

Douglas E. Noll

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 September, 1999

In this column, I argue that the phrase win-win should be stricken from the peacemaker's vocabulary. In my opinion, win-win expresses a superficial niceness while papering over differences. Seeking a win-win outcome creates distrust and frustration, not peace.

 Win-win is one of four outcomes from a game called the Prisoner's Dilemma. Game theorists devised The Prisoner's Dilemma thirty years ago to examine strategies of competition and cooperation. The game is set up between two people. Both are told they are prisoners and charged with committing a crime together. If they each confess, they will be jailed for 18 months. If one confesses, but the other does not, the confessor will go free, while the non-confessor will serve 24 months. If they both refuse to confess, they both get 3 months. They are separated and asked to make a decision: confess or remain silent.

The Prisoner's Dilemma captures the tension between the advantages of selfishness in the short run versus the need to elicit cooperation from the other player. The players can either cooperate between themselves or defect from one another. No matter what the other does, the selfish choice of defection yields a higher pay off than cooperation. But if both defect, both will do worse than if both had cooperated. Thus, the four outcomes are win-lose, lose-win, lose-lose, and win-win.

 Because of its amenability to statistical analysis and computer modeling, The Prisoner's Dilemma has been a favorite research topic for psychologists. Hundreds of experiments have been conducted, resulting in a large body of published literature. As a result, win-win is used to describe an optimum conflict outcome. As I will explain, win-win is dangerously simplistic.

 First let's examine the assumptions underlying a win-win orientation to conflict.

 The first assumption in The Prisoner's Dilemma postulates that the players know all the available choices. In the Prisoner's Dilemma, decision-making is not clouded by ignorance, uncertainty of choice, or mystery about the outcomes. Contrast this assumption to real life. In real conflicts most parties rarely know of all the choices. Often conflict arises because of incomplete information about options, desires, interests, abilities, or goals. Thus, the first assumption of The Prisoner's Dilemma proves false against reality, and a win-win outcome is simply impossible.

 The second assumption is that each player is acting out of rational self-interest--no emotions. Each prisoner has to rationally balance and reason through what the counterpart is thinking and reasoning. In real life, people deal with conflict emotionally as much if not more than they do intellectually. Rational self-interest is rarely the sole basis of decision making. Win-win appeals to a logical, analytical process that rarely dominates real life conflicts.

 The third assumption is that the range of choices is limited to two possibilities. In real conflicts, the range of choices is usually much greater than two possibilities. Many times, the parties are unaware of their range of choices.

 The fourth assumption is that the choices have equal value to each player. In other words, each prisoner values freedom or imprisonment equally. In real conflicts, many choices have unequal values. One party may value a choice or outcome that has no value to the other. Or, both parties may value the same choices in differing degrees.

 Finally, the choices in The Prisoner's Dilemma only reflect one aspect of conflict-a content goal. Issues of identity, relationship and process are ignored. Yet these issues often drive conflicts. Identity relates to self-esteem and respect; relationship concerns relative power or equality between parties in conflict; and process relates to how the parties see the conflict being escalated or resolved. The Prisoner's Dilemma sheds no light on identification and transformation of these conflict goals.

 In addition to the unrealistic assumptions underlying a win-win orientation, the very nature of the term implies competition instead of cooperation. Winning means beating you. The term win-win is consequently unconsciously translated as I win more than you win or I don't care what you win so long as I win. Thus, win-win is a self-contradictory euphemism. People say they want a good resolution, but really mean that the resolution has to be on their individual terms. When people say one thing, but mean something else, we call them insincere. In the worst cases, we call them liars. We become wary when someone says he wants a win-win solution when contextually that does not make sense. Hence, the win-win idiom often creates mistrust.

 In the world where large corporate cultures and small teams are supposed to express shared values, win-win conflict resolution strategies are frequently applied. We can come together and resolve our differences, it is supposed, and everyone should come out winners. This is a cultural discourse, not a neutral one. This is the discourse of nice guy liberalism, the passive-aggressive discourse of politeness, the patronizing discourse of trying to get what you want while trying to tell someone else that they are getting what they should want. Some people play this discourse better than others. Indeed, agreeing to disagree may be the optimal outcome, even the most productive one. The best negotiation will not be forced to end with win-win.

 Generalized across all conflict contexts, win-win is not a genuine conflict resolution, but rather a mechanism for persuading others that they can have what they want, without really giving anything away. It is clever, but not very productive for long-term conflict resolution.

 Thus, win-win is neither a process nor an outcome. It is a reductionistic method for avoiding the underlying causes of serious conflicts.

 The Way of the Peacemaker: Be aware of the fallacy of win-win. Conflict is far more complex than game theory and is not reducible to simplistic resolution formulas.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 1999, Douglas E. Noll

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