Thinking Toys #10 — Bargaining


Do you notice yourself waffling between different approaches to a  problem? Half-assing two strategies and not making the kind of progress that seems possible? This can feel like stuckness or indecision between two paths. Sometimes it’s experienced as a recurring pattern of distraction. One potential solution is bargaining — coming to an internal agreement where each strategy gets a full-assed attempt at success rather than simultaneously half-assing both. Before proceeding, it’s best to empathize with the two sides and seek alternative approaches. If those still leave you feeling stuck between two paths, then try bargaining. Propose a set of terms that allows you to commit to trying one strategy before switching to the other. If you succeed, you may notice immediate relief from associated anxiety and second-guessing.


Bargaining works when you can make the side of the strategy-that-will-go-second feel secure. Unfortunately, it often gets thrown under the bus. You know what this feels like. “I’ll check Twitter for an extra 5 minutes now and then not again until tomorrow.” Often when faced with a short-term urge, we sacrifice our future self. If one path feels more immediately enjoyable, it tends to work best if that one goes second. When both paths feel equal in desire then the ordering matters less. In that scenario, the important move is to state the terms of the agreement in a clearly measurable way.


For a while, I bounced between writing publicly and free-flowing private theorizing. Often when I engaged with one, I would start to feel guilty about not working on the other. Earlier this year, I decided to see if I could fix this dynamic. I decided to spend a few weeks at a time working on private notes and then switch to focusing on public blog posts for the same length of time. I planned to try this strategy for 3 months and then reassess. By constructing a bargain that both of these desires approved of, they were able to stop interrupting each other. Immediately, associated feelings of anxiety or guilt from ignoring one or the other disappeared. This left me free to assess the merits of each one independently.


Once you’ve empathized with the different sides, you build up some trust that you can use to bargain. By keeping promises that parts will “get their chance”, they will often stop nagging you in the interim. This nagging is the anxiety, indecision, and distraction-seeking that presents when two parts are in conflict. When a part feels heard and trusts an agreement, it often stops sapping your energy and frees up your attention. Self-trust is crucial here. Without it, your parts won’t believe in the negotiation process.


We often bargain to deceive or manipulate our future selves. “I really want this cookie now but I know it’s bad for me. I can justify it if I promise myself to spend an extra 30 minutes at the gym later!” This is the dark side of bargaining. We tend to fail to hold up the future end in these scenarios. This builds resentment in the part that cares about the “good in the long-run side” and erodes self-trust. With reduced self-trust, parts become skeptical of any bargaining and we lose the ability to do so. You can check-in with the parts of you to see if they already feel this way, thereby beginning the process of restoring trust. If you notice yourself trying to bargain to enable an immediate urge, try to pause and increase awareness of the pattern. Consider reversing the ordering — allow yourself the indulgence but only after the “good side” goes first. Allow yourself a cookie after the gym. Ideally, you can avoid this type of bargain entirely.


As Ainslie argues in Breakdown of Will: “Will, in short, is a bargaining situation, where credibility is power.” (good overview here). Building this trust is a matter of bargaining fairly — being curious when you listen to the parts — and honoring your agreements. This is easier when you consider more contingencies in advance. Try to think of all the ways your plan may hit exceptions and cause you to break the agreement. Account for these in advance of imposing the bargain.


One common failure mode of internal bargaining is a lack of clarity in the terms. It works best to stick to conditions that are falsifiable. You should be able to easily tell when one strategy has succeeded or failed or when it’s had its fair turn. Track things in time or money, or other measurable outcomes (win/lose). Be specific about how much is “enough”.


Where has bargaining worked well for you? In what scenarios has it failed?


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Also published on Medium.

5 thoughts on “Thinking Toys #10 — Bargaining

  1. This makes a lot of sense and is well-put. A few thoughts:

    – It’s interesting to consider different bargaining scenarios: short-term vs long-term, system 1 vs system 2. (Romeo has noted that system 1 cares most about data, and is unlikely to trust a bargain that seems unlikely to work based on past results.)

    – What’s “actually” happening in the brain when we’re indecisively waffling between two courses of action? I’ve been trying to frame behavior in terms of the Predictive Coding framework lately, which usually works really well, but it seems to fail to generate a clear hypothesis here. (Maybe it’s just because I’m not being sophisticated enough…)

    – “Bargaining works when you can make the side of the strategy-that-will-go-second feel secure.” That’s a really good point.

    1. 1. ya, in general, system 1 seems to be more short-term oriented but not always. Some cultural norms (and/or some pathologies, whatever that means) seem to be deeply-enough ingrained that they function at S1 level — anorexics disgusted by food

      2. I’ve only read notes from books or short papers on predictive coding but it seems like the main weakness may be something like assuming a single cohesive entity. If you conceptualize the mind as lots of parallel structures doing predictive coding-like things with loose synchronization, then you can see “waffling” as negatively correlated action-intensions, generated by independent-enough structures, arising closely in time

  2. Bargaining is essential for freelance work, where the temptation is to always be distracted by the thought that you “should” be looking for more work.

    Scenario 1: you are looking for work. There is often a scenario when there is nothing more you can do in 24hrs to find work, yet worrying about it prevents enjoyment of other activities. My bargaining is along the lines of: Monday: check new jobs ads on top three sites. Tuesday 9am call three recruiters. Wednesday work on portfolio projects for two hours. Friday spend two hours high level strategising. Once these tasks are complete, one can enjoy the free time that being out of work provides, albeit without much money.

    Scenario 2: found and finished some work. My brain will constantly worry about finding the next piece of work. Bargain here is to have x months totally off thinking about work, via a sound financial plan with the money I’ve just earned and a set date to resume looking. Sometimes I even mentally commit to refuse to accept work that is offered, so as to focus on not-work things.

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