Negotiation Research You Can Use: When Fear of Impasse Leads to Bad Deals

By — on / BATNA

Experienced negotiators understand that they should reject any deal on the table that is inferior to their best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA. At an auto dealership, for example, you shouldn’t buy a used car if you are pretty sure you can get a better deal on a comparable car elsewhere. Yet in the heat of the moment, people often accept options that are inferior to their best outside alternative, professor Ece Tuncel of Webster University and her colleagues found in a series of experiments.

In one of the experiments, participants were told they were being paired online with a person whom they did not know and would not meet or deal with again. (In actuality, there was no such person.) Participants were asked to divide a fixed number of points between themselves and the other party nine times; each time, one party’s gain would be the other party’s loss.

For each of their nine choices, participants were asked to select between an option that gave them fewer points than their counterpart and an option that gave them more. In the “framed” condition, the former option (fewer points for themselves) was labeled “Agreement”; in the control condition, it was labeled “Option A.” In the framed condition, the latter option (more points for themselves) was labeled “Impasse”; in the control condition, it was labeled “Option B.” The results showed that participants in the framed condition chose the Agreement option 24.55% of the time, while those in the control condition chose the equivalent Option A only 3.99% of the time. That is, participants’ bias toward reaching agreement (and/or not reaching impasse) often led them to make choices that left them worse off than their counterpart. This was true despite the fact that they knew they would not be building a long-term relationship with the other party.

In another experiment, MBA students in a negotiation course bargained face-to-face, and their outcomes were linked to their grades in the course. Participants in this study often preferred to reach a deal that was economically suboptimal for them personally rather than reach an impasse. In about 75% of the pairs that reached agreement, one party settled for a deal that was detrimental to his or her economic interest in the negotiation and his or her course grade.

Agreement attraction or impasse aversion?

The researchers noted that it’s worth looking at whether participants agreed to subpar deals because they felt psychologically compelled toward agreement or because they felt a strong desire to avoid impasse. Consider that negative events (such as impasse) tend to affect us more strongly than positive events (such as agreement), a phenomenon that Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University and his colleagues Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen D. Vohs dubbed the “bad is stronger than good” effect in a 2001 paper. For example, negative emotions and feedback have more impact on us than positive emotions and feedback. Consequently, Tuncel and her colleagues theorized that the motivation to avoid impasse, a negative event, should be stronger than the motivation to seek agreement, a positive event.

Indeed, that is what the researchers found. Specifically, when making monetary allocations between themselves and a partner, MBA students were more likely to choose the personally disadvantageous option when it allowed them to avoid impasse than when it allowed them to reach agreement.

Becoming comfortable with impasse

In our own negotiations, how can we overcome this predisposition to avoid impasse and accept an agreement that’s worse than our BATNA?

Awareness of the tendency could help motivate us to make smarter choices and more thoroughly compare the option on the table with our alternatives away from it. In addition, simply avoiding the words “impasse” and “agreement” entirely during negotiations may help avoid stirring up the strong motivations these terms bring, the researchers suggest.

And in related work, researchers Taya R. Cohen (Carnegie Mellon University), Geoffrey J. Leonardelli (University of Toronto), and Leigh L. Thompson (Northwestern University) found that teams of negotiators were more likely than individual negotiators to reach impasse when impasse was the rational choice. Therefore, you might consider working as part of a team or enlisting advisers to help you evaluate your options in negotiation.

Resource: “Agreement Attraction and Impasse Aversion: Reasons for Selecting a Poor Deal Over No Deal at All,” by Ece Tuncel, Alexandra Mislin, Selin Kesebir, and Robin L. Pinkley, Psychological Science, 2016.