Harness the Power of Popular Opinion

Capitalize on social norms in your next negotiation.

By on / Negotiation Skills

Whether we notice them or not, social norms—the rules of behavior deemed acceptable in society—have a strong influence on our behavior. We automatically lower our voices when we enter a library and raise them at football games. We arrive at work on time but show up to dinner parties half an hour late. We stop at red lights rather than green lights and (in some countries, at least) walk on the right side of the sidewalk rather than the left. Norms keep society running smoothly, help us fit in, and even give us a sense of belonging.

Social norms are a powerful force—so powerful, in fact, that you can harness them to improve your negotiated outcomes, others’ outcomes, and your negotiation performance.

Nudging people toward better decisions

In their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008), University of Chicago professor Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School professor Cass R. Sunstein explain that we can encourage people to make more rational decisions by anticipating and capitalizing on the cognitive biases that affect them, including reliance on social norms.

Our knowledge of cognitive biases can help us design systems that steer people toward choices that would benefit them and society at large, such as saving more for retirement, making healthier food choices, and donating their organs after death.

To take one example, the state of Montana launched an educational campaign to reduce smoking among teenagers. One advertisement revealed that “Most (70 percent) of Montana teens are tobacco free.” By suggesting that not smoking is a more popular choice than smoking, the ad capitalizes on students’ desire to conform to social norms—that is, to fit in. After the campaign was launched, teen smoking decreased significantly in Montana.

Such “nudges” attempt to move people in directions that will improve their lives. Beyond social norms, nudges can capitalize on many other common tendencies that could steer us wrong.

For example, researchers have found that inertia and the tendency to stick with the status quo prevent people from contributing adequately to workplace retirement plans. A simple switch—automatically signing them up to contribute and requiring them to “opt out” to reduce or eliminate their contributions—has been found to significantly increase employees’ savings rates at the organizations where it’s been implemented.

Majority rules

In new research, Meirav Furth-Matzkin, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, and Sunstein examined whether social norms could be used to sway people to support certain policies. In survey studies, they presented an identical public policy to hundreds of Americans with diverse political views. Half of the participants were asked to assume that most people supported the policy; the other half were asked to assume that most people opposed it. The policies presented in the various studies involved nudging citizens toward a certain outcome that could increase the common good. For example, a policy in one of the studies presumed consent for organ donation rather than requiring people to sign up to donate, a nudge that has been found to increase organ donation and save lives.

When participants were told that most people favored the policy that they were presented with, they were more likely to support it than when they were told that most people opposed it. For example, 56% supported the organ-donor policy when they thought it was popular; the level of support fell to 43% when they thought that it was relatively unpopular.

On a wide variety of policies—ranging from obesity reduction to improving fuel efficiency—people’s levels of support rose by about 10% when they believed the majority backed rather than opposed them. Although those with firm opinions about a particular issue were unlikely to be swayed by the majority, those who felt less strongly about the issue and those who were unsure about what to support were open to being swayed by the majority opinion.

Amassing support

The results suggest a strategy for negotiators: When trying to persuade someone of the merits of a policy or proposal that you’re advocating, be sure to emphasize its broad popularity, if this is the case. That might mean surveying your current customers and presenting favorable feedback on your past performance to potential clients, turning in a proposal for family leave to your employer with a petition that’s gone around the office, or supplying a negotiating partner evidence that your offer is in line with expert opinions on an issue.

Finally, in his book Influence: Science and Practice (Allyn and Bacon, 2001), Arizona State University professor Robert B. Cialdini confirms that we look for “social proof” of the correctness of a behavior when deciding what to do. In particular, we tend to be most swayed by people who remind us of ourselves. So, try to refer to comparable groups when attesting to a proposal’s popularity in negotiation. If you are trying to win support for a new initiative in your department, for example, ask those who share similarities with the holdouts—in age, temperament, experience, and so on—to make the case for it on your behalf.

Other proven influence strategies

The following tactics also have proven to be quite persuasive in negotiation:

  • Offer limited choices. Because an excess of options can lead to “decision paralysis,” offer your counterpart two or three choices rather than, say, 10 or 20.
  • Give your counterpart a “gift.” Look for opportunities to make minor concessions, and frame them as acts of generosity when possible. For example, you might tell your counterpart that she is welcome to choose your meeting location. Such low-cost gifts are likely to be reciprocated, especially if you label them as concessions and highlight any sacrifice you might be making.
  • Unbundle gains; bundle losses. People tend to prefer one large loss over two equivalent smaller losses, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman found. Conversely, people prefer two small gains over an equivalent large gain. Given these tendencies, it’s smart to dole out your own concessions in stages—but to ask for concessions from the other side all at once.

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