How to win the game of chicken


8 June 2005

Want to improve your chances of winning a game of chicken? Throw away your steering wheel!

That is the advice in Six Steps for Making Your Threat Credible over at HBS Working Knowledge.

(In the game of chicken two people drive towards each other at high speed. The fist one to alter course looses. If both drivers stay on course, they both die.)

Now consider this strategy: Once the cars are headed directly toward each other, you unscrew your steering wheel and throw it out the window, making sure that your opponent sees you do it. Foolish? So it would seem, but your threat is now entirely credible. You can’t change course even if you wanted to. It’s up to your opponent to decide whether to lose the game or die. The odds are in your favor.

While the stakes are usually lower, negotiation often resembles a game of Chicken. Both sides make threats in an effort to change their counterpart’s behavior or beliefs. You might threaten to take your business elsewhere unless the other side sweetens her offer or pursue litigation if she refuses to address your grievances. Your success depends on whether your threat is credible. Does your counterpart truly believe you’re ready to walk away from the deal?

There is some good thoughts in this article, but please don’t forget that the best approach is usually to try to create a win-win situation. Only when that is impossible should you take your spanner to the steering wheel….