Definition of the Winner’s Curse in Negotiations

Winner’s Curse Negotiations and How to Identify It in Negotiation Scenarios

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The winner’s curse negotiations, when a negotiator overbids for an item due to competitive pressure or other non-value related factors, is a major pitfall that integrative bargainers should seek to avoid. In our article, Winner’s Curse – Negotiation Mistakes to Avoid, we offer some negotiation strategies you can use at the negotiation table in order to avoid the winner’s curse and achieve a win “without regrets.” There are two main reasons the winner’s curse is a common and dangerous trap in negotiations.


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Winner’s Curse Negotiations Tip 1. Your gains depend on the other side’s acceptance

After some coaching, many negotiators realize that an optimal bid is 0 in our negotiation role play simulation, Acquiring a Company exercise, yet most readers without negotiation training will make a positive offer. When we bid on something, our gains depend on acceptance by the other party. This acceptance is most likely to occur under conditions undesirable to the bidder and favorable to the seller. Across many types of negotiation, whether business negotiations or international negotiations, most people fail to make this connection. Groucho Marx demonstrated his grasp of the winner’s curse when he said that he didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

Winner’s Curse Negotiations Tip 2. The other side knows more than you do.

After falling victim to the winner’s curse in negotiations, you’re likely to notice that the other party – who is almost always the seller – was much better informed than you were about the terms of the deal. When you’re bidding on a commodity you know little about, your uncertainty is heightened. When you’re presenting this bid to an informed opponent, your expected return from the transaction will decrease dramatically. The average negotiator will accept your offer only when the actual thing bargained over is worth less than your estimate.

In negotiation research that earned him the Nobel Prize, George Akerlof, Koshland Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that the selective acceptance of offers can lead not only to bad outcomes for buyers, but to market distortions. The used car market offers a graphic illustration of the consequences of wide-spread fear of the winner’s curse in bargaining scenarios. As most of us understand, the average used car on the market is hardly “average” in quality. If it were, the owner would have hung on to it or perhaps sold it to a relative or a friend. The bigger the lemon, the more likely it is to enter the marketplace. Intuiting this fact, most people approach used cars with caution: they bid low and get ready to walk away. In this fashion, the average quality and price of a used car becomes distorted, as does the used car market as a whole.

Related Negotiation Skills Article: Business Negotiation Techniques and Dealmaking – Bargaining with Agents 


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Originally published in 2013.

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