OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

Secrecy and Deception

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Confrontations tend to be more constructive if the parties have an accurate image of the interests, positions, and actions of the other parties. Actions based on inaccurate understandings of the situation are much less likely to achieve their desired objectives and much more likely to unnecessarily antagonize opponents. Nevertheless, distorting an opponents' image of the situation can often produce significant tactical advantages. Such distortions can arise from secrets as well as spreading deceptive information.

For example, a military force which can keep its attack plans secret is much more likely to be able to launch a surprise attack which will find opponents unprepared and less able to defend themselves. This same general principle can be applied to political campaigns, in which the sudden release of a damaging piece of information can cause greater harm if the opponent does not have an opportunity to anticipate the release of the information and implement a preemptive damage-control strategy. Similar surprises can contribute to the effectiveness of other types of force as well. Not surprisingly it is common for disputing parties (especially, nation states) to devote enormous amounts of effort to the protection of their own secrets and the discovery of the secrets of their opponents.

Deception is a related strategy in which the parties attempt to gain a tactical advantage by distorting, rather than concealing, information. For example, military leaders might attempt to convince opponents that their forces are stronger than they actually are. In this case, the parties deliberately try to give their opponents an inaccurate and tactically advantageous image of the situation.  Similarly, parties might indicate that they have better alternatives to a negotiated agreement (BATNAs) than they really do.  Since better BATNAs mean more power, if you can convince your opponent that your BATNA is better than their own, this will give you a negotiating advantage.  Another example might be that people opposed to the construction of a new chemical plant in their neighborhood might exaggerate the health risks associated with such a plant to give them more influence in the decision making process.

While these techniques are certainly capable of strengthening the positions of people who use them, they have costs and risks that often outweigh the benefits.  First and most obviously, it makes it extremely difficult for the parties develop trust for one another. This distrust can, in turn, make efforts to negotiate agreements.  This is especially true in disarmament negotiations, because the   parties are likely to conclude that they can't take the risk that their opponent will cheat, so they won't agree to anything at all. A history of secrecy and deception also increases the chances that the parties' will develop worst-case images of one another.

A third problem with secrecy and deception is that it makes it hard for either side to develop an accurate image of the real interests or needs of the other(s).   This makes effective interest-based bargaining or needs-based processes such as analytical problem solving practically impossible to implement. This, in turn, makes the development of win-win outcomes almost impossible.

Avoiding the problems associated with secrecy and deception does not, however, mean that the parties need to tell each other everything, or that negotiators need to tell their constituents everything. People often need to be able to consider controversial ideas without fear that early release of incomplete ideas will become a source of conflict. Without this limited secrecy, which is often referred to as confidentiality, parties to discussions may be completely unwilling consider the difficult issues. Here, ground rules can often be used to give the parties better information about when it is and is not appropriate to release information about ongoing discussions.

Links to Examples

Heidi Burgess--Environmental Mediation (The Foothills Case)
In this case study, one of the parties kept crucial data secret which made negotiations very difficult and much more expensive for the opponents who had to collect independent data on their own.  This independent data collection then led to a credibility problem on both sides.

Links to Related Approaches

Private Meetings

Confidentiality Rules

Ground Rules

Links to Related Problems


Communication Problems

Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu