Chapter 2: Negotiation and Game Theory

In the second chapter, we see the fallout from the terrorist attack begin to become clear. After a long night of laying on the floor and dozing, people start to get restless, having been lulled into a sense of security by the relatively uneventful night. In this chapter, there are three main points that I would like to focus on.

First is the underlying relation of the events that are depicted to that of opera and music as a whole. Patchett emphasizes the fact that the guests listened more than anything else at first. On the first page of the chapter, she writes, “It was surprising how much more they could hear now that they were lying down . . . and so guests closed their eyes to settle into the serious business of listening.” (35) Later, when Roxane Coss is escorted to the bathroom by a boy named Cesar, the reader is shown how he thinks of her. He gives her his time, as she cannot be rushed, and is still enthralled by the sound of her voice from the previous night. Indeed, he is depicted as humming some of those songs that tie him to the singer.

We also see the shift in the way that the hostages view their situation. The previous night was experienced in a dream-like, terrified state. The whole event seemed supernatural – there was a certain quality of fear that isolated the hostages from one another and from the outside world. However, over the course of the chapter we see a gradual shift from the complacent and controlled state that was encouraged by the sudden fear and shift of power to a more relaxed environment. When the guests are brought out to the restroom one by one, they are shown that they will be cared for. They are emboldened by this fact and develop an idea that they will be treated decently.

I feel that the most interesting part of this chapter is the negotiations with the International Red Cross agent, Joachim Messner. The negotiations are careful, but the first exchange we are privy to follows a fairly standard strategy. Dr. Marc Kilgour of Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada writes about game models for negotiation. He explains that negotiation inherently requires a “strategic conflict.”[1] In this case, it is that Messner and the Generals have very different goals for the situation’s outcomes. Messner desires the release of the hostages, all unharmed, and likely the capture of the terrorists, whereas the Generals demand the President as a trade. According to Kilgour, there are four key characteristics of negotiation situations.

  1. Each participant in a negotiation has a decision to make;
  2. Every participant is made better or worse off according to the decisions of all participants;
  3. All participants can send and receive messages;
  4. No participant is obligated to accept any particular resolution[1]

Kilgour goes on to explain the manner in which the negotiators will cooperate with one another. He says that a rational negotiator will attempt to reach the most desirable outcome. Also, he notes that the two negotiators “will continue to negotiate only if they have a reasonable expectation of receiving more than the maximum return they could achieve without negotiation.” (2) This means that each person partaking in the negotiations will attempt to reach a solution that is the most positive outcome from their point of view. He goes on to elaborate on the power of a mediator. In Bel Canto, Messner serves as the mediator for the first stage of negotiations that we are privy to. Kilgour observes that the mediator is theoretically a neutral party, offering no real change to either strategy. However, Kilgour notes that “a skillful mediator can make an enormous difference in the outcome . . . by clarifying the issues” (2) Messner, and as an extension, the Red Cross, act as the mediators in the situation between the Generals and the government. In addition, Gen also functions as a mediator in a more literal sense. He is literally an agent of clarification between the two parties. Gen and Messner work together to solve two situations between the parties. According to basic game theory, as described above, the two parties will work towards solutions that benefit them both, or will settle for a situation in which they sacrifice nothing if the other party gains nothing.[1]

The exchange of hostages becomes an example of this. In return for letting the women, children, and injured leave the building, the terrorists receive food, water, blankets, and other supplies. This situation benefits both parties with minimum loss to both sides. Thus, the terrorists release the hostages that offer them no gain and earn the supplies that they need to continue the negotiations.


-Sara Laudeman


One thought on “Chapter 2: Negotiation and Game Theory

  1. Michael Pedersen says:


    What a unique choice of topic! Game theory has so many interesting applications. It hadn’t occurred to me until now how insightful it might be to analysing negotiations. It would be beneficial however if you defined game theory clearly within your post. To the uninitiated it can be a very vague concept, especially since it has become an umbrella term covering many academic fields.

    Since game theory utilizes probabilistic and mathematical models to make decisions it is always important to consider “rational” agents as you did before describing each negotiator’s process. In order to flesh out your post a bit more it could be useful to explain some of the limitations of game theory in describing real world situations. For example, the dependence on rational agents, an agent always acts according to the most optimal solution for itself, is integral to game theory and somewhat limits the scope of its conclusions. The text itself is quick to point out the emotional side of this event which is at odds with the game theory perspective of considering only “rational” entities.

    Clarification, as you mentioned, is key to having smooth avenues of communication between two parties. If you wished you could have easily related this back to the game theory idea of “imperfect information” in which all players, or mediators in this situation, do not know the previous decisions made by all other players. This forces them to guess on the intentions and trustworthiness of each others’ suggestions.

    All in all, a very good post that brought up many intriguing areas of further thought.

    – Michael Pedersen


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