The Regretful Negotiator

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Second Thoughts,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen,” wrote the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, “the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.'” Many negotiators would second that sentiment. Regret can be a powerful emotion when a deal slips through our fingers or when we kick ourselves about getting fast-talked into a lousy agreement.

Regret isn’t a bad thing, of course, if it keeps us from making the same mistake twice. But brooding over roads not taken can distract us from making the best of whatever has happened at the bargaining table, good or bad.

Experiments by Dutch researchers Eric van Dijk of the University of Leiden and Marcel Zeelenberg of Tilburg University shed light on what makes us more or less regretful about our decisions. Specifically, they found that the less certain a foregone alternative is, the less regret participants felt. Thus, a negotiator weighing two different deals would feel less regret if she believed she made the safer bet, even if the other had a higher potential upside. It’s easier to shrug off regret if we can tell ourselves, “Who knows how it would have worked out?” Likewise, participants felt less regret about missed opportunities that were quite different from what they chose. When faced with a choice between apples and oranges, we’re less likely to second-guess ourselves.

By contrast, negotiators can get tied up in emotional knots when alternatives are similar. In this case, they have to live with the shortcomings of an agreement while idealizing what might have happened “if only” they’d taken the competing offer.

Most important for negotiators is van Dijk and Zeelenberg’s observation that anticipated regret contorts our choices at the bargaining table. If standing firm could blow the deal, we may compromise and agree to a mediocre proposal out of fear that we’ll later regret rejecting it. Because we often exaggerate how sad or happy we will feel when a particular event occurs, it’s important to be careful not to overcompensate.

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