Merriam-Webster defines deadlock as a state of inaction or neutralization resulting from the opposition of equally powerful uncompromising persons or factions. Some people are familiar with the computer science version of deadlock as defined in Wikipedia. A deadlock occurs when the first process locks the first resource at the same time as the second process locks the second resource. The deadlock can be resolved by cancelling and restarting the first process.
Like many people, I observed deadlock situations through out my life. I think it is interesting to see how many of those deadlocks could have been avoided, but it seems to human nature to get into deadlocks. The tendency to get into deadlocks is similar to the prisoner’s dilemma. The best outcome is achieved when people cooperate, but how many times does cooperation really happen?
A few years ago, I was in a taxi in a “smaller” city in China, which had about 10 million residents. In the smaller cities, the automation and efficiency of the traffic controls and public transit is probably less than ideal compared to cities like Shanghai. We got tangled up in a traffic intersection which had a traffic light but nobody seemed to be paying attention to it. Our car wanted to make a left turn and the car going in the opposite direction also wanted to make a left. It would seem logical for one of the drivers to allow the other driver to make a left first. Of course, this did not happen. As soon as each driver signaled their intent to make a left turn, they rushed forward and ended up stuck in a deadlock. Instead of allowing one of the cars to back up, the other drivers rushed forward to create no space for maneuvering. Everyone opened up their windows to scream at each other and nobody moved anywhere for about a half hour. I could not open up my door on either side because the other cars were too close and I am not sure what would happen if I climbed over other cars to get out of this mess.
After some time, some of the outer lane cars escaped the jam by driving around onto the sidewalk. People better move out of the way or they will get run over. Once the outer lane cleared up, the driver opposite to us managed to wiggle out. You would think that we can make our left turn and get out. Instead, the next driver rushed forward to create another deadlock. We get to yell at a different driver for 15 minutes. Its not really known to me why this happens. When faced with a situation that clearly needs cooperation to achieve a beneficial outcome, we cannot seem to cooperate. Ultimately, you need a police officer to get to the intersection and break apart the jam.
In more recent times, I business negotiations break down because all the parties would stick to their positions and rather have no deal if they can’t get exactly what they want from the deal. Of course, you don’t want to end up with a deal that is worse than no deal. But often times there is a deal that can be beneficial to all parties. But like the scorpion and the frog, sometimes we are doomed to drown.