Beware Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Negotiation

What are self-fulfilling prophecies in negotiation and how can bargainers avoid falling victim to them?

By on / Negotiation Skills

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction of expectations that a person has that comes true because he or she expects it will.


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.


Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and Sub-Optimal Negotiated Agreements

In negotiation, self-fulfilling prophecies inform actions and decisions at the bargaining table that may lead to fewer value creation opportunities and make it difficult to reach a negotiated agreement with your counterpart.

In the article, “Power in Negotiation: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies,” when a negotiator expects her counterpart to be a hard-bargaining, competitive negotiator, she may inadvertently affect the other side’s behavior.

Demonstrating the power of expectations, Harvard University social scientists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted social science experiments in the 1960s that drew a correlation between academic advancement for elementary school children who were told they were “late-bloomers” and those who were not given such information. Those who were told they were “late-bloomers” worked harder and were given more attention from their teachers.

The experiment discovered that the expectation of a child’s academic development accelerating led to the actual accelerated academic development of that child and the concomitant heightened dedication of the teachers to this goal.

Another experiment from negotiation research by Kristina A. Diekmann (University of Utah), Ann E. Tenbrunsel (Notre Dame University), and Adam Galinsky (Columbia Business School) showed that, relative to negotiators who anticipated less aggressive negotiating counterparts, those who expected their counterparts to be competitive (without any rational basis for believing so) reduced their own demands and achieved worse outcomes at the bargaining table, thereby allowing their counterpart to claim more value and become more competitive.

First Impressions at the Bargaining Table and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Negotiation

In the article “Why First Impressions Matter,” negotiation research focuses on the impact of first impressions on bargaining styles and strategies, or “When you approach an allegedly tough competitor with suspicion and guardedness, he is likely to absorb these expectations and become more competitive.”

Bias and Stereotypes in Negotiation

Two impacts of a self-fulfilling prophecy have been discussed: how it can alter a negotiator’s approach to the bargaining table, and how it can impact her bargaining relationship with that counterpart into the future. A third impact that self-fulfilling prophecies can have on negotiations is when they are informed by prejudice, bias, and stereotype. These self-fulfilling prophecies can preclude value creation and potentially destroy bargaining relationships, and the skillful negotiator knows how to avoid them.

In the article “How Stereotypes Impair Performance,” negotiation research referencing the power of stereotypes on motivating (and dis-incentivizing) certain types of behavior at the negotiation table is described with reference to the effect stereotypes have on bargaining performance and success.

The dangers of a self-fulfilling prophecy should not deter negotiators from attempting to make logical inferences while at the negotiation table. By inferring, and not assuming, a counterpart’s desires based upon her language and actions during negotiations, bargainers can craft more comprehensive and effective agreements that seek to fulfill both sides needs.

Strategies for inferring your counterpart’s aims at the negotiation table are discussed extensively in the article “Be a Better Mind Reader and Create Value Using Integrative Negotiation Strategies,” among which include paying close attention to a counterpart’s body language during negotiations and how to avoid social projection, or the tendency to think a counterpart may share certain views or preferences without her stating these same views or preferences.

Roman Trötschel, of the University of Trier in Germany, and his colleagues suggest negotiators develop methods of perspective taking that can help them obtain a more complete picture of her counterpart’s goals. As Roman Trötschel describes, “perspective taking involves making a conscious effort to identify the underlying interests behind a counterpart’s position. For instance, if someone refuses to share some information you’ve asked for, rather than writing her off as uncooperative, you might consider various reasons she could have for holding back, such as privacy or legal concerns.”

When they view negotiations more broadly, bargainers are able to create more value. Negotiators that lack the ability to view the negotiation in the broadest way possible may be at a competitive disadvantage compared to negotiators that are capable of using adaptive strategies.

To avoid the negative impact of a self-fulfilling prophecy, remember to approach each negotiation in isolation from biases, past histories or reputations, or even prior negotiations. This method allows for the most integrative approach to the bargaining table. Discovering the unique value-creation opportunities inherent in every negotiation allows a negotiator (and her counterpart) to achieve optimal, win-win negotiated agreements, and contributes to a bargaining relationship based upon mutual exchange and goodwill.


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.


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