Balancing act: the neuroscience of negotiation

Posted on June 12, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |


Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at what we can learn from neurobiology in order to improve negotiation and mediation processes. 



Pencil on a finger


Emotions are central

In Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (1995)neuroscientist Antonio Damasio outlined a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they also couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, yet they found it very difficult to make even simple decisions. This means that even when we believe we are motivated by logic, the very point of making a decision is based on emotion. Damasio’s discovery has had a profound impact on those who are involved with negotiation and mediation processes.

Jim Camp, the founder and CEO of The Camp Negotiation Institute, believes that:

In general, if you can get the other party to reveal their problems, pain, and unmet objectives, then you can build a vision for them of their problem, with you and your proposal as the solution. They won’t make their decision because it is logical. They’ll make their decision because you have helped them feel that it’s to their advantage to do so.


Ten neuro-principles of the negotiation process

Building on Damasio’s work, mediation specialist  Jeremy Lack and his colleague François Bogacz, an expert negotiator, posit ten ‘neuro-principles’ that influence negotiation and dispute resolution situations:

    1.  We consume our brain’s resources efficiently, and create patterns/scripts/memories
    2.  We predict according to our patterns/scripts/memories
    3.  We are conditioned to avoid and be far more sensitive to danger/fear than to  reward/pleasure, which we seek 
    4.  We first perceive via emotions (unconsciously) before being able to self-regulate (consciously or by habit)
    5.  We seek safe or comfortable status positions at all times
    6.  We relate and empathise in-group (but not ‘out-of-group’)
    7.  We believe in ‘fairness’ and react negatively to ‘unfair’ behavior
    8.  We need autonomy/feelings of autonomy and feel/suffer if it is lost
    9.  Our ‘social’ stimuli are as powerful as our ‘physical’ ones
    10.  We operate cognitively in two gears (‘reflexive’& ‘refleCtive’ modes) but tend to favour X-mode

According to their research, these principles have practical implications for the way negotiators can prepare, generate options, and seek compliance.They also reveal insight into how mediators and leaders can best intervene in conflict prevention and resolution processes.


The cognitive bias effect

Since all information is perceived, filtered, distorted, and framed according to individual patterns, scripts, and memories, and since decisions are based on emotions, cognitive bias plays a huge role in how negotiations unfold. Bias can take many forms, but there are those that directly affect negotiation, ranging from an irrational escalation of commitment to the mythical belief that the issues under negotiation are all fixed to the process of reactive devaluation.

For example, initial commitments may become set in stone, and a desire for consistency prevents negotiators from changing them. This desire for consistency is often exacerbated by a desire to save face or to maintain an impression of expertise or control in front of others. No one likes to admit error or failure, especially when the other party may perceive doing so as a weakness. And then, all too often, negotiators approach negotiation opportunities as zero-sum situations or win–lose exchanges. They assume there is no possibility for integrative settlements or mutually beneficial trade-offs, and they suppress efforts to search for them. Reactive devaluation is the process of devaluing the other party’s concessions. The very offer of a particular proposal or concession — especially if the offer comes from an adversary — may diminish its apparent value or attractiveness in the eyes of the recipient.

As you can see, each of the biases described above could potentially operate as a significant barrier to agreement. And these are only a few of the cognitive and psychological factors at play in a given negotiation process. (See our comprehensive list of cognitive biases.)

Gender matters

15_Glass_Ceiling_6045There’s another aspect worth noting. For all the advances women have made in the workplace, when it comes to negotiation unconscious bias works against women more than it does men.

Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In and the chief operating officer of Facebook, recognises the difficulties of negotiation. However, she urges women not to be paralysed by fear but to take direct actions in their own best interest.  Nevertheless, many psychologists who study the role of gender in negotiation advise otherwise.

This type of caution is confirmed by Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the director of the Women and Power program, who has been researching gender effects on negotiation. Using the results of laboratory studies, case studies, and extensive interviews with executives and employees in diverse fields, she concludes that our implicit gender perceptions mean that much of the advice women are given may not have the intended effect. As much as we hear that women should stand up for themselves and assert their position strongly in negotiations, it can and often does backfire.

In several studies, Bowles and her colleagues found that people penalised women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation more than they did men. According to an article by Maria Konnikova for The New Yorker, “the effect held whether they saw the negotiation on video or read about it on paper, whether they viewed it from a disinterested third-party perspective or imagined themselves as senior managers in a corporation evaluating an internal candidate.”

A delicate balancing act

So what can be done?

Lack and Bogacz offer some suggestions. First, priming, framing or reformulating are very important, as they offer ways to shape how initial patterns of behavior and negotiations unfold. Even the use of a single word – like keep instead of lose – in the presentation of options can unconsciously influence the conscious choices people make. Furthermore, in addition to words, we need to be conscious of the para-verbal and non-verbal communications that pervade negotiations and group dynamics.

Lack advances a view of mediation that tries to take neurobiology into account, claiming that it is not simply facilitated negotiation, but a facilitated social, emotional, and cognitive process. He considers the social and in-group scripts that are triggered by the process itself to be a key concern and feels that attention should be given to  how participants are primed and prepared for coming into the process.

In the words of mediator David Plant (who died in 2012), “We have to start by defining the process as part of the problem.” We need to be aware of human tendencies and how they might influence negotiation. And, finally, we need to be aware of how our own perceptions influence outcomes and how the process itself can trigger first impressions and affect the participants’ social scripts and patterns.

Emotions and emotional intelligence should be seen as central to effective negotiation, rather than something to be overcome. Teasing out which cognitive biases might be involved in a given situation is also critical. It’s a delicate, sometimes perilous balancing act – there are just too many complex variables involved. By applying what we are learning from neuroscience, however, we may arrive at the negotiating table with an advantage.



. .
Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest passion.

Make a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: