The Ambidextrous Negotiator

By on / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Evenhanded Decision Making,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, May 2006.

As discussed in past issues of the Negotiation newsletter, anchoring and framing can bias important decisions in negotiation. A buyer may make a more generous offer than she intended, for example, after a seller drops anchor on a bold demand. A litigant who focuses on his chances of winning in court-a positive frame-may be less likely to settle than if he concentrated on a negative frame: his corresponding chances of losing.

Many researchers have studied how such biases are amplified or moderated by mood, expertise, and personality. And groundbreaking work by professors John D. Jasper and Stephen D. Christman of the University of Toledo suggests that some of our susceptibility to decision biases is hardwired.

Specifically, they found that people’s “handedness”—that is, whether they are “righties” or “lefties”—affects how they integrate new information, such as an anchoring price, with their prior knowledge. Handedness is a recognized indicator of how the right and left hemispheres of the brain process and share data.

The bad news for those of us with a dominant hand, whether right or left, is that we are more likely to be anchored by irrelevant information than are “mixed handers.” Jasper and Christman report that the ambidextrous sometimes slip up, too, though they tend to “possess better metacognitive skills than strong-handers. That is, they spend more time thinking about, reflecting on, monitoring or regulating their own thinking.”

In making decisions during negotiation, we must constantly balance the benefit of gathering more information with the hope of making a better choice against the cost of vacillation. Likewise, we need to balance what we already know with what we are learning as we negotiate. Unfortunately, right- or left-handedness means that most of us are programmed to react to whatever our counterpart just said or did. It likely takes effort, but most of us would do well to emulate the evenhanded weighing of information practiced by the ambidextrous.

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