A professor at Harvard has applied her behavioral science background to the use of the “sequestration” tactic in an article, “The Strange Behavioral Logic of the Sequester Stalemate.”

She uses the somewhat forced nature of the upcoming automatic spending cuts and compares elements of the situation to other hard-and-fast goals we place upon ourselves in everyday situations, and uses her behavioral science background to suggest why the stalemate in Washington.

She states two assumptions for the purposes of this exercise: that the players involved genuinely want to reach a resolution, and that the process itself is difficult.

These are large assumptions to make, especially the first one, and she has glossed over other factors such as ideology or political manueverings (not minor assumptions), but the exercise in a useful one in understanding how behavior can impact public policy.

Francesca Gino writes:

…Behavioral science research can help explain the reasons behind the current stalemate. We know from hundreds of research studies that goals do motivate people: specific, difficult goals make people strive harder to accomplish what they set out to do. One example, ironically, comes from government: In 1961, president John F. Kennedy gave a speech that set the goal of getting people to the moon and safely back within a decade….These specific, difficult goals are intended to motivate us to do things that we do not like to do, like negotiating over budget issues with a counterpart who does not share our views….

But research also suggests that goals are not always beneficial. When people violate their goals (eating that bag of chips), they experience further delays in task completion and tend to perform poorly. So if you only have five pounds to go, you’re more likely to try hard to lose it. But if you fail to accomplish your goal, or think that reaching it is nearly impossible, you’re more likely to experience negative emotions and resignation.

In other words, hard and fast goals are productive up to a point–and if the outcome seems unobtainable, you may end up in a worse negotiating place than before.