Emotion in Negotiations: How to Detect Sincerity at the Bargaining Table

By — on / Negotiation Skills

Following the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 2010, some media observers criticized President Barack Obama for seeming to be emotionally detached. Obama ultimately did display anger about the oil spill in a televised interview, only to be further critiqued on the grounds that his anger did not seem genuine.

Expressing anger can be an effective means of promoting cooperation from a negotiating counterpart, ample research has found. Yet the negative reaction to Obama’s delayed display of anger suggests that the effects of anger in negotiation may be more complicated. The anecdote also raises the question of whether expressing contradictory emotions over the course of a negotiation can help us or hurt us. Two new research studies published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology explore these issues and provide guidance for using emotions appropriately in your business negotiations.

Fake it till you make it?
Anger can be a boon to negotiators, at least when it comes to claiming value. When our opponents appear angry, we tend to assume that they are tough, have ambitious goals, and are unlikely to back down from their demands. Viewing angry negotiators as formidable opponents, we respond by making concessions and lowering our demands.

These conclusions were reached in lab experiments where participants engaged in negotiation simulations with seemingly angry counterparts. Notably, the participants in these experiments had little reason to doubt that the anger expressed by the other party was genuine. Their counterparts expressed their anger in written messages, for example. As a result, it remained unclear whether negotiators could simply fake anger to reap some of its benefits.

Researchers Stéphane Côté(University of Toronto), Ivona Hideg (Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario), and Gerben A. Van Kleef (University of Amsterdam) set out to examine whether pretending to be angry has the same effect in negotiation as actual anger. In one of their studies, the researchers assigned undergraduate students to play the role of seller in a simulated one-round negotiation over a used car. Participants were led to believe that the negotiation would be conducted via videoconferencing, unaware that their counterpart was an actor whose offer had been videotaped in advance.

The actor was filmed delivering his offer in three different ways: (1) with a neutral, emotionless demeanor; (2) with “deep-acting” anger elicited by his memories of an actual event that had made him angry; and (3) with “surface-acting” anger in which he tried to express anger on his face while remaining emotionally neutral inside. The participants in the experiment were shown one of these three videos and then were asked whether they would accept the counterpart’s offer, which was the same in each condition.

The results? Participants who viewed someone who seemed genuinely angry were less demanding than were those who viewed the neutral-seeming negotiator. By contrast, participants felt distrustful when their counterpart appeared to be faking anger and, as a result, made higher demands than did those facing a neutral counterpart.

The study suggests that, because of a lack of trust, people make high demands of people who fake their anger. They are also dissatisfied with their interactions with these negotiators and have little interest in dealing with them again. The results suggest that—unless you are a very good actor—strategic displays of anger are likely to backfire.

Do you contradict yourself?
Several historical figures, including Queen Elizabeth I and French president Charles de Gaulle, were legendary for their quixotic behavior during conflicts and negotiations. These leaders appear to have believed that their inconsistency would surprise and unsettle those around them and induce compliance.

Maybe this description reminds you of a significant person in your life. Or maybe you’ve found yourself fluctuating from one emotional state to the next over the course of a single negotiating session. It’s natural for our feelings to change during a negotiation, of course. But how will others react to our displays of different emotions?

In three experiments, researchers Marwan Sinaceur (INSEAD, France), Hajo Adam (Rice University), Van Kleef, and Adam D. Galinsky (Columbia University) looked at whether emotional inconsistency and unpredictability affect counterparts’ concessions.

In one experiment, undergraduate students believed that they were engaging in a simulated sale of mobile phones with a counterpart via computer; in fact, the counterpart’s behavior was controlled by the experimenters. The participants (the sellers) were able to negotiate three different issues over the course of five offers and counteroffers. Some of the participants received messages from counterparts (the buyers) who seemed emotionally consistent: either always happy or always angry from one round to the next. Others received messages that alternated between angry and happy from round to round.

As in past research, participants made more concessions to consistently angry counterparts than to consistently happy counterparts. Participants also made more concessions to emotionally inconsistent counterparts than to emotionally consistent ones. In another of the team’s experiments, participants made more concessions to counterparts whose messages veered from angry to disappointed than they did to counterparts whose tone was consistently angry.

Across the experiments, people made greater concessions to counterparts who seemed emotionally inconsistent because they felt they lacked control when negotiating with unpredictable counterparts—and backed down in the face of this uncertainty.

The results suggest that we should remain aware of the tendency to concede too much when negotiating with people who seem emotionally unpredictable. Don’t take the findings as a green light to cultivate an aura of emotional inconsistency yourself, however, as it remains unclear whether faking an unpredictable nature will harm you or hurt you.

Resources: “The Consequences of Faking Anger in Negotiations,” by Stéphane Côté, Ivona Hideg, and Gerben A. Van Kleef. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2013.

“The Advantages of Being Unpredictable: How Emotional Inconsistency Extracts Concessions in Negotiation,” by Marwan Sinaceur, Hajo Adam, Gerben A. Van Kleef, and Adam D. Galinsky. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2013.

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