You know the scene. Your children are playing a board game and everything starts out fine. Then, the disucssion starts getting a little bit louder, and the next thing you know, they are in a heated battle over the game, who cheated, and threats they are never going to talk to each other again. After repeatedly separating the kids and reminding them that they should be nicer to each other, we think that we will never see the ends of these arguments. But reducing the number and the intensity of these conflicts is possible, if we strike the right bargain.
Here's where a little knowledge of human behavior and game theory comes in handy. Psychologists have found that how children approach negotiations, depends in large part on notions of fair play. And game theorists have devised various ways to approach any negiotation, some of which are more likely to result in fair outcomes than others. Some scenarios require an authority figure, like a parent, to enforce them, but other scenarios are designed to structure the bargaining so that no enforcer is needed. With the right incentives, children can be taught to reach fair argeements all on their own.
Everyone wins when children figure out for themselves that cooperation beats conflict, and decide to cooperate without threats from the parental authorities. They key is not that the children will coopeate every time; they will not. But if they know they must meet in negotiaton again, they might figure out that cooperating this time could win them better treatment from a sibling next time around.
Cooperation is part of our biology. Spelke, a psychologist at Harvard, noted that adults prefer to share with three groups of people: close relations, people who have shared with us, and people who have shared with others becasue we like to reward generosity even if it is not directed towards us, what game theorists call "indirect reciprocity." Even kindergartners have a sense of fair play and will share more with specifica groups, family, friends, and people who have been generous with them.
Be sure that the benefits of cooperation are in equal balance. If one child stands to gain more than another, then spite might rear its ugly head. When children realize that they have to negiotate repeatedly with one another, they figure out that cooperating this time could win them better treatment from a sibling next time around.
To learn more about this topic, read The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting: How the Science of Strategic Thinking Can Help You Deal with the Toughest Negotiators You Know- Your Kids by Paul Raeburn and Kevin Zollman (2016).