How do you form a coalition? Social psychologist Ilja van Beest on fairness and self-interest

How do you form a coalition? Social psychologist Ilja van Beest on fairness and self-interest

Which parties will soon form the government? That question is still unanswered months after the election. How do you actually get everyone on the same page and what is the science behind coalition formation? Univers talked about it with full professor of social psychology Ilja van Beest.

DEN HAAG – Party leaders Mark Rutte (VVD) and Sigrid Kaag (D66) at the Binnenhof before the start of a discussion with informateur Mariette Hamer. ANP BART MAAT

Van Beest is not a political scientist, but as a social psychologist, he knows better than anyone how people try to divide things. He visibly enjoys the creative solutions we come up with to do that in a fair way. “We apparently find that extremely important,” says the Tilburg professor. And it’s no different when forming a new government.

What do you think would be a coalition?

“Sometimes I imagine it like this: there’s a jar of candy on the top shelf of a cabinet and you have three children. One is tall, one is small, and one is in between. None of the children can reach the jar, but if one lifts the other it works.

“That’s a coalition. One child can help the other but will ask the question: what do I get out of that pot? So a coalition is formed when you don’t have the power alone, you need each other, and there is something to share.”

So in that division, fairness plays an important role in addition to self-interest. How about that?

“After World War II, much research was done on coalition formation based on popular game theory: a theory that studies people’s choice behavior. What choice do we make and when?

“All those theories basically said the same thing: people prefer to form the coalition that best represents their self-interest.

“If you have a lot of votes, like now for example the VVD, then in negotiations with another party you would say: I represent a bigger piece of the Netherlands, because twice as many citizens voted for me, so I think I should have twice as many ministerial posts.

“What struck me in that is that people use fairness to sell that self-interest. They don’t say: I have double the number of votes, so I can have three times as many ministerial posts as you. There is a fairness principle in it: I have contributed more and so proportionally to my contribution I should get that back. The theories of coalition building at the time all pointed to self-interest and overlooked this fairness principle.”

And how do you use fairness in the division of, say, a bag of money?

“Very bluntly put, a person on the right will say, the one who works the hardest is entitled to a larger share. While the left will say, we’re all human beings and we’re doing our best, so we’ll divide that bag equally. Both players are trying to sell their own interest by pointing out fairness.”

Where do we see this fairness rule in the political bargaining game?

One of the reasons I got on this train of thought was the formation of Paars II, by Wim Kok in 1998. That formation was at the time of my thesis and, therefore, something I thought a lot about at the time. PvdA and VVD gained 45 and 38 seats respectively, but D66, the third party from Paars I, suffered a considerable defeat and was left with 14 seats.

“Yet the two largest parties wanted to continue with D66. There were 14 ministerial posts to be distributed, both PvdA and VVD wanted six, but D66 did not settle for just 2 ministers.  And then, something very interesting happened, in which I think I clearly see that fairness principle.

“Because, how did they solve that? By creating an additional ministerial post! The Minister for Large Cities and Integration Policy. Also jokingly called the ‘ministry of silly walks’, because it had no budget. I can only understand that by noting that fairness is important because why else would you do it?”

And then what is the explanation for the use of fairness in political negotiations?

No party in the Netherlands is big enough to run the country alone. You have to sit at the table with your ‘enemy’ and cannot realize all your views. You have to be able to explain to the home front that you have made concessions. How do you explain that? By saying: but this was fair, wasn’t it?”

Does the party with the most votes also have the best bargaining position?

“It just depends. The number of votes is certainly an important power factor, but the number of coalitions you can subsequently form is also very important. A far-right party, for example, may have a lot of votes but fewer opportunities to form a coalition. Many parties will not want to work with that party.

“A somewhat smaller middle party may be in a stronger position. The power you can derive from that strong bargaining position is factored into the bargaining process, several of my experiments showed.

“The largest party can also sideline itself in a negotiation by shouting too loudly that it is the strongest and therefore wants the most. If we don’t have to, we prefer not to enter into a coalition with that party. We also call this the strength-is-weakness effect in social psychology.”

Ilja van Beest. Image: Jaap Joris Vens

You also discovered that in negotiations it matters whether gains or losses are divided.

“Indeed, this was evident, among other things, in a coalition game I played with some students. For example, three people can divide a sum of six euros by negotiating with each other. What usually happens is that two participants say: we determine together that we each get three euros and they keep quiet about the third. In this way, the profit is maximized.

“But I asked myself, what about six euros of loss? As it turned out, if you divide that we become much fairer. Hardly anyone says: shall we determine together that this third party is going to pay for everything? Apparently, we find it difficult to cheat someone in that way. This shows that we dare to claim the benefits but prefer to divide the burdens more fairly.”   

How might we reflect that principle of gain and loss in the current negotiations?

“We are now as a society more in a ‘profit frame’ than in a ‘loss frame’. We are almost out of the coronavirus crisis, the terraces are open, in short, things are going super well. If people think: there is profit to be shared, then you are more likely to see more self-interest.

“By that reasoning, it is more likely that the smallest possible coalition will be created. One that is just able to govern the country in terms of majority. Then the parties can maximize their self-interest and sell that to their supporters.

“But if the current situation is portrayed more as a crisis situation, ‘we have to completely rebuild the country after the coronavirus situation,’ then a theoretically unnecessarily large coalition can be formed. Parties, which are not actually needed for a majority, can also join in. In the context of: ‘das schaffen wir zusammen’.

“Basically, you then water down the power. You could have had more power, but you don’t do that. It is easier to sell that choice, according to my research, when you portray what you divide as a loss.”

So we are going to pay attention to fairness arguments and the gains and loss frame. What else should we keep in mind?

“Something else that is very important in negotiating is putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Taking perspective. The ultimate example of that is the famous story of the two sisters who are going to divide ten oranges. How do they do that do you think?”

I would think, five for one sister and five for the other?

“That could be, but what does a smart sister do? She asks: what do you actually need those oranges for? Then it turns out that one needs the peel to bake a cake, while the other wants to squeeze. Aha! Well then, it’s ten-ten.

“That’s taking perspective. Asking what the other person wants. What a good negotiator does, and this is a tip for the formateur, is increase the size of the pot and then trade off on the things that are important to you.”

We’ve just had a Hague crisis of confidence. The calls for an end to backroom politics are getting louder, but at the Tafel van Martinus (in Dutch) I heard you make a case for less transparency?

“This has everything to do with my argument above. In order to ask what the other person wants, you do need a certain amount of secrecy. Putting your deepest desires on the table has to be safe. If you go public with them right away, your supporters will have something to say about it. You then have to include that in your negotiations.

“Sometimes you have to be able to consult in a relaxed atmosphere. Build up if-then reasoning with each other, with no consequences attached: ‘How do you envision that? Well, so and so.’ That kind of confidentiality is necessary. Transparency, to a certain extent, is deadly boring in a negotiation.”


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