How to be more logical than Star Trek’s Mr Spock
Juilia Galef, in her new book The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t, describes Star Trek’s Mr. Spock as a “Straw Vulcan:” a caricature of rationality designed to make rationality look foolish. That’s because he thinks the way most economists did through the 1990s: they assume that everyone is rational all the time. Wrong! People are often driven by emotions. Which does not mean their actions are unpredictable; quite the contrary. What we as negotiators have to do is to learn from experience what irrational behavior to expect; for instance, when angry, people often will be driven by spite more than by facts. We at Mobus Creative Negotiating draw on the explosion of research in recent years showing how people actually behave in business settings.
Spock was terrible at learning from experience. As described by the Financial Times’s “underground economist” Tim Harford, Galef went through every episode of Star Trek to document every time Spock made a prediction (“Mr Spock is not as logical as he’d like to think,” June 12, 2021,https://www.ft.com/content/261524b8-eece-40d4-9c0e-e3db30990524). When Spock asserts something is “impossible,” it happens 83 percent of the time. Hollywood script-writers are on to an important point here: when we are certain we know what can’t happen, we often have it wrong. As Harford wrote, “overconfident nonsense is common in real-world punditry” – and in negotiations. Many people seem to be guided by Spock’s approach: “If you can’t be accurate, at least sound self-assured,” as Harford phrases it.
Star Trek’s Captain Kirk was wise enough to use Spock as a reliably contrarian indicator: he asked Spock for his opinion and then did the opposite. Smart negotiators should have the same approach to economists still caught up in the old “rational person” model, which assumes (without evidence) that people always will do the rational thing.
Galef is host of the Rationally Speaking podcasts, which are informative and fun. Particularly useful is the one, “Why you think you’re right – even if you’re wrong.”