Adapted from “Fickle Intuition,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
When it comes to trusting others, negotiators often rely on their gut instincts. Recent studies indicate, however, that extraneous factors can sway such judgments. For example, Michael Kosfeld and other University of Zurich researchers introduced a twist in a classic trust game in which subjects must decide how much money to invest when there’s no guarantee that the party playing the “trustee” will return the investment or share the gains. Kosfeld and colleagues gave the “investors” a dose of nose spray before making their decision. Half received oxytocin, an odorless neuropeptide associated with social bonding in nonhuman mammals; the other half received a placebo.
Those treated with oxytocin were more than twice as likely to invest all their money than were those who received the placebo. Identical results were seen in a parallel experiment in which the decision to share the investment proceeds was made by computer. Thus, it appears that oxytocin increases our willingness to put our fate in another’s hands.
In a different study, Piotr Winkielman of the University of California at San Diego, Kent C. Berridge of the University of Michigan, and Julia L. Wilbarger of the University of Wisconsin had thirsty participants watch a computer screen showing a person with a neutral face. Some subjects witnessed subliminal images of either a happy face or a frowning face. Those who saw the happy face were willing to pay as much as four times more for a drink than were those who had seen someone frowning.
Such research underscores the fact that we are physical beings whose moods and willingness to be agreeable are affected by the environment in which we function. By definition, we can’t be conscious of subliminal influences. That’s all the more reason to balance gut reactions with reasoned analysis. Having “great chemistry” with others is all well and good, but it’s valuable to think through decisions, especially important ones, to check our transitory impulses.