Touchy-feely Negotiators?

By — on / Negotiation Skills

In a series of studies, Joshua M.Ackerman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Christopher C. Nocera of Harvard University, and John A. Bargh of Yale University explored how the feel of physical objects could arbitrarily be influencing our choices without our knowledge.

In one study, the researchers asked passersby to evaluate a job candidate by reviewing resumes on either light or heavy clipboards. Those who were given heavy clipboards rated the candidate as better overall and more interested in the position than those who were given light clipboards did. The results suggest that the physical heft of the clipboards affected how “weighty” participants viewed the job applicant to be.

In another study, passersby were given the opportunity to hold either a hard block or a soft blanket, ostensibly as part of a magic trick. Next they were asked to read a passage describing an ambiguous interaction between a boss and an employee. Participants who had handled the block judged the employee to be more rigid and strict than those who had handled the blanket.

In a final experiment, participants set in either a wooden chair or a cushioned chair while reading the same scenario used the previous experiment. Those who sat in hard chairs judged the employee to be significantly more stable and less emotional than those who sat in soft chairs.

Next the same participants were asked to negotiate for a new car with a sticker price of $16,500. Though chair hardness did not affect the size of the participants’ first offers, it did affect their willingness to raise their offers in a second round of haggling. Those who sat on soft chairs raised their offers by and average of $1,243.60; those who sat on hard chairs raised their offers by significantly less – $869.50. The experience of sitting in a hard chair appeared to unconsciously translate into a more hard-line approach to negotiation, such that these participants were reluctant to deviate from their initial decisions.

In Ackerman, Nocera, and Bargh’s experiments, the feel of an object seemed to unconsciously trigger metaphorical thinking – light or heavy, soft or hard – that influenced people’s choices. What does this mean for negotiators? By putting a counterpart in contact with certain objects, you might influence him in a certain direction (a strategy with ethical implications).

A final note: Nonverbal cues often do lend useful infights into a counterpart’s emotions. Face-to-face negotiations tend to be more successful than telephone or online talks for this very reason. So go ahead and meet in person when possible, but be aware that what you touch and see during the negotiations could have a subtle but real effect on your judgments.


Adapted from “Negotiating with All Your Senses,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, December 2010.

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