The Power of Vivid Data

By — on / Business Negotiations, Daily

Adapted from “What’s Really Relevant? The Role of Vivid Data in Negotiation,” by Max H. Bazerman (professor, Harvard Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Students at top business schools are in an enviable position to negotiate for issues central to their careers and personal happiness. After all, they’re bright, well-trained, and highly sought after by the finest companies in the world. The process of negotiating their first postgraduate job should be fairly simple, shouldn’t it? Perhaps, yet many recent MBA grads change companies very soon after taking their first position.

To understand why newly minted MBAs often take the wrong job, consider the influence of their peers. At one business school, MBA students would meet between classes in a particular lounge. As recruiting season arrived, the most popular topic of conversation there became job interviews and offers. Statements like these were common:

The medical benefits are very good.
Everyone seemed really happy during my visit to corporate headquarters.
I’d get to travel to Europe regularly.
The starting salary is $130,000.
Employees have significant control over their work assignments.
The office was recently renovated.
I got an offer from McKinsey.

Which statements were most likely to spread on the student grapevine? Those that conveyed the most prestige: The starting salary is $130,000 and I got an offer from McKinsey. Statements about medical benefits and office renovations, by contrast, received scant attention. Other students tended to take note of the most vivid attributes of job offers, and the students who received these offers no doubt noticed that they’d impressed their peers.

No surprise, then, that when weighing job offers, many students base their decision on vivid, high-prestige qualities such as salary or firm reputation, overlooking factors more relevant to their ability to thrive in the new position. Thus it is that many MBA grads quickly quit their high-paying jobs with prestigious firms to pursue work more conducive to their long-term happiness and success.

These job seekers, like all negotiators, are susceptible to the vividness bias—the tendency to overweight vivid or prestigious attributes of a decision and underweight less flashy issues that will nonetheless profoundly affect them. In doing so, they fall prey to other people’s notions about what they could do or what they should desire. Significant research suggests that negotiators often underweight the attributes of a decision that will have the greatest impact on their personal happiness—a mistake we all have the power to avoid.

How can you keep vividness from working against you? Here are a few ways to focus your attention in the right direction:

1. Recognize vividness as a potential source of bias. The next time you hear a vivid story, ask yourself whether the data is as relevant as it is vivid. Just as wise consumers should thoroughly research the products described in vivid ads, wise negotiators should approach vivid claims with a healthy skepticism.

2. Know what you want before the negotiation begins. Predictably, unprepared negotiators are far more susceptible than their prepared counterparts to the lure of vivid information. Being prepared means knowing what you want and focusing on your goal rather than allowing yourself to be swayed by the manipulations of the other side. An MBA student should think about what he truly values in life before evaluating job offers. His decision should be based on these priorities rather than on what will create the best impression on classmates.

3. Use vividness wisely. When your idea makes sense, and when it’s ethical and socially permissible, consider using vividness to sell your own argument. In budget meetings, a manager who uses visuals to portray her need for project funding is likely to be more successful than a manager who doesn’t. When her arguments are compelling and sound, the wise executive uses the intuitive impact of vividness not only to make better negotiation decisions for themselves but also to improve others’ ability to do the same.

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