Diplomacy, The Brain… and Gandhi

Some of you will know…. I am one of those weird, geeky Diplomacy Players.

This is my second time writing about it, the first being a wanton foray into the world of Diplomatic women.

Diplomacy, The Brain… and Gandhi was originally written for the May 2022 edition of ‘Notes on a Napkin.’ A magazine (or Dip-Zine) aimed at fellow Diplomacy Geeks.


“Can you cope with an article on the neurobiology of diplomacy, Mal?

  • Why the way our brain functions makes us good or bad diplomacy players
  • The biological basis of mutual understanding
  • What neural processes create misperception or the perpetration of deception”


“Err…. Probably not the right way to look at it Poots, but err… uh… mmm… s’pose. Ok.”

The boy can’t say no. But it’s hardly a ringing endorsement. Or unbridled enthusiasm.


I set out to prove to you that BRAINS ARE BRILLIANT.

What’s even better than a brain?

TWO BRAINS, working in perfect synchronicity, Norway to Syria.


Picture the scene.

I’ve played face to face diplomacy before. This isn’t my first game.

However, it is my first time at the WORLD DIPLOMACY CHAMPIONSHIPS – YIKES

Round One

Buggering Badgers – I’m purple. RUSSIA. Nightmare.

ENGLAND – is the guy I had an inadvertent fumble with last night, jet-lagged, after 14 shots too many. Oopsie. Not my fault. I make awful choices and luck has forsaken me. Nothing new there.

AUSTRIA – is the good-looking guy your mother would love. Smiley. Charming as feck, but a stabby-stabby (so says all the room).

MYSTERY-TURK – no idea. Materialised through a time portal 2-minutes before board call.

GERMANY – 3 ft 9 in, Metallica t-shirt and not had a shower in two weeks.

30-minutes of high stake, one-to-one interactions.

30-minutes to rule the world. Or at least not get jumped. Establish relations, build understanding, reassure, appear credible, hash out deals, ultimately find cooperative solutions that are better than everyone else’s.

Smile, Pootle, Smile.

Northern openings – noooo? Sweden? Black Sea bounce, yes? Gal? Mos to Ukr? Austria or Turkey? Ank to Arm? Holy-Moly.

My perception of my colleague and the relationship we end up cultivating is determined by the up-coming 30-minutes.


None of us are blank slates.

We both bring ideas formed by other actors. Strangers to diplomacy and completely exogenous to our first encounter. Baggage (‘you look weirdly like my dad’); Gender; Cultural stereotypes; Upbringing; Values; Bad faith models where the past influences the present (‘you stabbed me before, ya b’tard); Plus – it’s all about the relationship with your mother daaahling.

We are both defining who each other are.

My presence in the debate is physical, but also metaphysical. Who I am is determined in part by who my colleague thinks I am. Let me tell you now, most of the rumours about Lauren ‘Pootleflump’ Lloyd – wholly untrue. All of ‘em.

Both sides are engaged in processes of deducing and interpreting, making inferences about what the other side is up to.

The role I cast my partner into, is met by the corresponding role he gives me.

The bits of our brains that are firing, the pattern of neural networks, will either mirror or not. Synchronise or not.

In 2010, eminent neuropsychiatrist Vilayanur Ramachandran termed the cells in the brain responsible – ‘Gandhi’ or empathy neurons. Neurons which adopt the other person’s point of view – almost as though they were performing a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s brain.

In that moment, the boundary between self and other is blurred. Our Gandhi moment. I experience what my opponent is thinking, feeling. His intentions. As if I am thinking, feeling, intending the same thing. The same bits of our cingulate cortexes light up in unison. Mirror images.

Although complex and our understanding far from complete, ‘Mirror Neurons’ play a role in Cognitive Empathy (our understanding of other players perspectives).

Top Diplomacy Players have honed their Inner Gandhi.


Here is a three-pound lump of jelly you can hold in the palm of your hand.

It can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space. It can contemplate the meaning of infinity. Ask questions about the meaning of its own existence.

There are 100 billion neurons in the adult human brain and each neuron makes somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 contacts with other neurons in the brain. The estimated number of permutations and combinations of brain activity in a single brain exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe.

Now imagine there is no barrier between my brain and your brain, then his brain (Western Triple) and what we have the potential to achieve. This of course is the basis of much Eastern philosophy. There is no real ‘independent self’ inspecting the board, aloof from other people inspecting the board. The board is quite literally connected by its neurons.

I am proposing that Simulation Theory (ST) represents the method by which diplomacy players interact and come to understand the intentions of other players, that this explains their decisions and what they ultimately write on bits of paper.

ST is an extension of ‘Theory of Mind’ (TT). TT advocates that we infer the mental states of others by relying on theories, experiences and learning derived throughout life. ST suggests we don’t learn them, we simulate them in our own brains. We actually feel and experience them directly. In that huddled moment, my brain mirrors yours, Turkey-man.

Social life requires quick judgement on complex things.

Since the minds of individuals are actively experiencing what the other is experiencing, when the two become congruent, the perception of others’ mental state is done automatically and directly. 

Ever had an intuition about another player? A gut feeling?

Frequently we know instantaneously. We know without knowing how we know. We know without conscious processing. The direct and automatic product of the mirroring process. Diplomacy players often have a ‘feel for the game’ that guides their decision making. They are operating on subconscious data generated by their mirror neurons.

Some diplomacy players are much better at it than others.

Our brains have evolved the ability to know what it feels like to be someone else, and to be able to analyse and interpret things as though you were the other person. Mostly this is at the level of imperceptible micro-expressions. Brief, involuntary facial expressions that accompany emotional experiences and thoughts.

In that sense, we don’t need a theory at all to understand the feelings or intentions of others. We don’t need to have met them before today. We don’t need to use the bank of memories of ‘people I’ve met who are like them.’ We don’t learn this stuff or think about it. We just do it.

Neuroscientists have been studying these processes for years (and still don’t fully understand them). Laboratory-type studies; animal models; people with brain pathology which disrupts mirroring; and more directly measuring electrical activity/ functional brain scanning during social interaction.


Aha. If I can feel what you’re feeling, and more importantly, feel what you are thinking. Then once that feeling hits conscious processing, I can choose what to do about it.

What begins as an automatic experience is reflected upon.

I gauge my opponent’s reasons and motivations, and I deliberate about the context of the map. It is at this point, doubt, latent mistrust, bad faith, stress, anxiety, hubris, fatigue, three pints of Stella and an Ardbeg chaser – and so on, ultimately affect what I do.

Our brains have evolved for empathy and altruism, but being able to manipulate that function is what makes for an utterly brilliant stab. The “man, ah didnae see that comin” moment.

It takes two to tango, and two to deceive. The deceiver and the target.

Our brains also come equipped with resources to detect when we are being lied to. If we hadn’t, we’d have died out as a species.

Those skilled at deceiving and those skilled at detecting deception both score highly on emotional intelligence and consequently are able to synch with others, ‘mirror’ and interpret the subtle, subconscious micro-cues accurately.




Let’s throw personality in too.

Detecting deception is much, much more difficult when your ally has a proclivity to deception. Machiavellian intelligence is linked with the ability to use empathy strategically. The ability to appear to possess great empathic capacity, even if you don’t.

Similarly, psychopaths (or ‘tough-minded’ individuals) possess a strong ability to manipulate others because they often have superior perspective-taking abilities.

Whereas, it’s relatively easy to deceive a narcissist as they usually over-estimate their ability to read others. They think they’re the only Gandhi in the room.

I used to be a narcissist, you know. But now look at me.

From the bottom of Mahatma.



As I write this article, we are a month into the war in Ukraine.

Throughout history leaders have sought ‘just cause’ to kill people in pursuit of their ambitions. One factor has to be the lack of face-to-face international relations over the past two years, and individual nations isolation. Lots of time to navel gaze about chest-thumping nationalism.

And as far back as Augustine of Hippo in the 4th Century CE, there have been academics, theologians and useful idiots who have been only too willing to enable and lend credence.

We know that ruthless, psychopathic, narcissistic or Machiavellian types are drawn to political power. Soon other people with psychopathic traits emerge and attach themselves to the pathocracy, sensing the opportunity to gain power and influence.

At the same time, responsible and moral people gradually leave the government, either resigning or being ruthlessly ejected.

Pathocracy is a system of government wherein a small pathological minority takes control over a society of normal people.

Pathocratic leaders present a compelling, simplistic ideology. They promote notions of future greatness, with a need to eliminate alleged enemies. Impulsiveness is taken for decisiveness; narcissism for confidence; recklessness for fearlessness.


And utterly terrifying.

Diplomacy finds peaceful resolution, not war.

Face-to-face meetings have been a cornerstone of world politics since at least the fourteenth century.

Who’s up for the Post-Covid-Putin-Challenge?

*scans the list of top ten Dip Players*

You claim to be a decent Diplomacy Player? Honed your Inner Gandhi?

Go on then.

Can’t be any harder than the World Championships, can it?

“It all gets down to the conduct of foreign policy being personal… I think it’s vitally important that not only you know and have as hard of a read as you can get on the foreign leader with whom you are dealing, friend or foe, but that leaders know that what you say, what you do, what you propose is real…”

Pootle Gandhi-Flump

April 2022

Now read this one: https://lauren-lloyd.com/2021/10/28/the-true-object-of-all-human-life-is-play/

And check out Notes on a Napkin: https://diplomaticon.com/2021/09/25/notes-on-a-napkin/

Want to give Diplomacy a try? https://www.playdiplomacy.com/

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