Negotiation – a look at empirical evidence


Random pic from a guy with a similar name to Loewenstein. Image by matthiashn via Flickr

Academics can be both frustrating and refreshing all at once. They do a great job – George Loewenstein is one of the best – of providing empirical evidence of how things are. Often, however, they don’t express strong opinions on the implications of their findings. They leave that sort of thing to hacks like me. Hooray?

Loewenstein hops into the world of negotiation in an article called “Explaining the bargaining impasse.” I won’t do a full review or try to explain his points in detail. I’ll leave that to people with even more boring lives than mine. I will, however, offer some opinions where Loewenstein leaves off. I’m sure he would agree with everything I’m about to say…if only off the record.

The most interesting finding that he presents is that when people are asked to write down the weaknesses in their own position, they are able, to some extent, overcome the self-serving bias (processing information that supports one’s own position more readily than opposing information).

The question that he leaves unanswered is whether this activity is a good one, or whether the self-serving bias actually helps us achieve a better result. My answer is that it depends on the type of negotiation.

In a one-off deal, do the self-serving thing. In a long term relationship, write down the weaknesses in your position. It will help you understand the other side. I’d also use this knowledge when developing a contract. What risks are you foisting on the other side, and will this damage trust? I’ve seen people talk a good game with relationships, but then go out and dictate a position that suppliers will outwardly accept. However, under this veneer, the lack of trust percolates and we are no longer united by a common objective.

The same principle can work in interpersonal relationships, both professional and private. I have seen people always complain about others not taking responsibility for things, and then proceed to not take responsibility for anything. Before behaving like a politician complaining about the deterioration of ethical standards, think about what the other person could realistically have accomplished given the circumstances. You’ll find that your ability to solve problems rises while the time spent blaming people falls dramatically.

This way of thinking can dramatically improve our lives. I have seen a small number of people in which conflict is truly a part of almost every relationship they have whether professional or private (this is the default, but even these people are able to overcome this state with conscious effort). They may not even recognize themselves in this portrait, because it is simply viewed as the way things are – i.e. you are not getting as much stuff as you potentially could if you are not in conflict with everyone who could potentially give you more stuff (curiously, kids are the only ones left out). It is as if their world is defined by the conflicts they have.

I have also seen people who seem to live in harmony with just about everyone. It is rare, but I believe that it is a glimpse our future. Collective action is the next frontier. More on all of this to follow, unless I catch the laziness bug that’s been going around.


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