Monday, 7 October 2013

When do negative emotions give you an edge in negotiations?

I’m sat in negotiations for a coveted deal. As time goes on, the person across the table looks pained, shifts in their seat, and tells me how disappointed they feel about my approach to the negotiation. How am I likely to adjust my style - would I go easy on them, or go in for the kill? New research by Gert-Jan Lelieveld and colleagues suggests it depends on whether I feel guilty about it - and that’s a question of social context.

In a first experiment, students were requested to engage in a computer-based ultimatum negotiation, where they get to slice up a resource between themselves and a counterpart, who then gets to decide whether the deal is on; if not, both sides receive nothing. Before negotiations, participants completed a survey on their general attitude to negotiation, rating items such as ‘During negotiations, my own outcomes are important’. In a series of deceptive turns, participants were told that their survey responses were shared with the counterpart who had found them upsetting; participants were then given access to a (private) typed reaction from the counterpart that contained either anger words or disappointment words. In truth, there was no counterpart, with the ‘reactions’ just part of the experimental set-up. What effect would they have?

Anger and disappointment led to similar offers, except in one case: when the counterpart was presented as being from a rival university, rather than a fellow student. Here, participants in the disappointment condition were prepared to make a more aggressive bid that took more of the pie for themselves. A follow-up experiment found similar aggressive bids following disappointment when the participants were negotiating on behalf of a group, rather than for themselves.

The exceptional results were both found in conditions designed to minimise guilt. Disappointment is a ‘supplication’ emotion that indicates that something is wrong, and others need to do something about it. As an example of an other-directed emotion, its function is to elicit helping behaviour from others by triggering the negative state of guilt. But supplication also signals passivity and even helplessness, so when guilt isn’t appropriate, observers may prefer to exploit the disappointed.

This is what we see in this pattern of results. Guilt is less appropriate towards out-group members, like a member of a rival university, and is also dissipated when negotiating on behalf of an absent social group towards whom you have more explicit obligations. In both experiments participants reported the levels of guilt they felt, and these scores tracked generosity of offers in the disappointment conditions, but not in the anger ones.

In these experiments anger reactions more consistently elicited generous offers from a participant, but Lelieveld’s team have also published work showing that the effects of anger also fluctuate, dependent on how powerful the counterpart is perceived to be. The takeaway is that emotions don’t have a deterministic effect on negotiation behaviour, but generate different influences depending on the framing of a situation.

ResearchBlogging.orgGert-Jan Lelieveld, Eric Van Dijk, Ilja Van Beest, & Gerben A. Van Kleef (2013). Does Communicating Disappointment in Negotiations Help or Hurt? Solving an Apparent Inconsistency in the Social-Functional Approach to Emotions Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0033345

Further reading:
Morris, M. W., & Keltner, D. (2000). How emotions work: An analysis of
the social functions of emotional expression in negotiations. Research in
Organizational Behavior, 22, 1–50. doi:10.1016/S0191-3085(00)22002-9


  1. Interesting. Anger enforces aggressiveness and decisiveness. At least, that's what I experienced. I'm glad to know it can also be an edge.