Adapted from “Predicting Your Response to Conflict,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Imagine an upcoming negotiation. How will you respond if your opponent seems bent on provoking an argument? If you’re like most people, you’ll have difficulty predicting your precise response. Professor Dan Gilbert of Harvard University found that when asked how a positive or negative event will affect their happiness, people accurately predict the direction of their mood but dramatically overestimate the degree of change. In other words, most of us correctly expect that a trip to Europe will make us happy, but we overestimate the degree of happiness it will bring us.
Researchers Kristina A. Diekmann of the University of Utah, Ann E. Tenbrunsel of the University of Notre Dame, and Adam D. Galinsky of Northwestern University conducted a series of studies showing that people are not very good at predicting how they will respond to conflict. When asked to imagine that they were facing a competitive opponent, participants overestimated how competitive they would be. In fact, participants actually negotiated less competitively than usual against very competitive opponents. They expected to fight fire with fire but, in fact, countered with concessions.
In one study, Julie A. Woodzicka of Washington and Lee University and Marianne LaFrance of Yale University found that women who imagined being confronted with sexual harassment tended to forecast that they would angrily confront their harasser. But actual behavior suggests that victims of sexual harassment are much more likely to respond with fear and not confront their harasser.
These differences between our expectations and behaviors are important. If we falsely believe that we would confront a harasser in the workplace, we may be less sympathetic to those who have been victimized and who fail to confront their harassers. Similarly, we may look down on colleagues who concede when confronted with tough negotiating opponents-failing to realize that we would act the same way in their shoes.