Power in Negotiation and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

As a negotiator, don't create a more competitive opponent

By on / Negotiation Skills

Self-fulfilling prophecies in negotiations

When you expect people to be competitive, it’s not only your own behavior that changes. You also set up self-fulfilling prophecies, such that your expectations about the other side’s behavior lead him to behave in ways that confirm your expectations.


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.

A classic example of the power of self-fulfilling prophcies

In a classic 1960s demonstration of the power of expectations to create reality, Harvard psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson administered a test to a group of elementary school children that assessed the children’s general intellectual ability.

The researchers told the kids’ teachers that the test could identify “late bloomers” – children who were about to show a substantial leap forward in intellectual development. In fact, nothing distinguished the “late bloomers” from the other children.

Apparently, the teachers’ high expectations led them to show greater attention and encouragement to the late bloomers, who became more energized and worked harder.

A similar self-fulfilling prophecy emerged in negotiation research by Kristina A. Diekmann (University of Utah), Ann E. Tenbrunsel (Notre Dame University), and Adam Galinsky (Columbia Business School). Relative to negotiators who expected less competitive opponents, those who expected their opponents to be competitive (though these expectations were not based on reality) reduced their own demands and achieved worse outcomes, thereby allowing their opponent to claim more value and become more competitive.

By reducing their demands in the face of expected competition, negotiators created a reality that was not only self-fulfilling but also self-defeating.

Furthermore, after talks ended, these negotiators’ opponents altered their self-perceptions; they came to view themselves as more competitive than did negotiators who were not expected to be competitive.

Negotiating Styles and Negotiation Techniques

Your expectations of a seemingly competitive buyer may lead you to lower your reservation price unnecessarily and reduce your expectations, generating worse outcomes for you and better outcomes for your opponent.

The bad news doesn’t end there.

The buyer may now view himself as a competitive negotiator, confirming your initial, if erroneous, belief. Your future talks will likely be with a competitive negotiator – one of your own making.

Negotiators are often advised to prepare for talks by considering the other party’s strengths and weaknesses. You should also check and verify your assumptions during the negotiation itself. Research shows that people fall victim to a host of perceptual biases when assessing others. Therefore, be prepared to find out that your opponent is very different than you expected her to be – and perhaps less competitive than you expected.

Adapted from “Break Through the Tough Talk” by Kristina A. Diekmann and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, originally posted in Negotiation Briefings.

Related Posts:
Dealmaking Negotiations: How to Build Trust at the Bargaining Table – Here is some bargaining advice to help your learn how to build trust with your bargaining counterpart.
Negotiation Skills: Are You Really Ready to Negotiate? – Knowing how to negotiate is important, but knowing when to negotiate is also a valuable portion of any bargainer’s strategy. In this article, we offer negotiation advice on how to seize opportunities to negotiate (and when to hold back).
Better Predict Your Negotiation Behavior – Predicting your counterpart’s behavior can help you better tailor your moves to meet her needs at the negotiation table. In this article we offer strategies for better predicting your counterpart’s behavior.
Win-Win Negotiations: Managing Your Counterpart’s Satisfaction – How to better manage your counterpart’s satisfaction with the negotiated agreement (and also help make sure both parties fulfill their obligations).
Win-Win Negotiations: Can’t Beat Them? Join a Coalition – Coalitions are powerful in multiparty negotiations and in this article we discuss how you can come to a negotiated agreement with counterparts by joining your interests to theirs.

Originally posted in 2014.


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.

One Response to “Power in Negotiation and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies”

  1. Jim Lyttle /

    Your expectations change your behavior, which changes the result. The result changes because of your behavior, not because of some ethereal effect of your thoughts. If you had produced the same behavior without the underlying expectation, you would have achieved the same result. The idea that the expectation itself changed anything is magical thinking, something of which we already have much too much. Reply

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