Adapted from “Honey or Vinegar?”, first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Who brings out the best in us: someone nice or someone nasty? According to a recent study by Gerben A. van Kleef and colleagues of the University of Amsterdam, we may be more generous toward angry people than toward happy people.
In the first two experiments of the study, participants were told they were taking part in a computer-mediated negotiation in which they couldn’t see their opponent. In fact, each participant dealt solely with a preprogrammed computer. Some participants were also given secret information about how their counterparts were “feeling.” When people believed that the other side was feeling privately angry, they didn’t bargain as hard themselves, apparently sensing that the other side was close to the limit.
In the final experiment, participants received expressions of either anger or happiness directly from their counterpart in addition to the secret information about how their counterpart was feeling. Here, participants again were cautious, conceding the most when dealing with a counterpart they believed to be inwardly angry, even when that counterpart sent cheerful messages. Perhaps participants felt they were dealing with a ticking time bomb.
By contrast, participants ignored expressions of anger when they believed their counterpart was privately satisfied with the process. Such behavior appeared to participants to be standard bluffing.
Surprisingly, however, participants were not cowed by counterparts they felt were consistently angry, both inwardly and outwardly. In those cases, participants responded with hardball tactics of their own.
Real-life negotiators can learn lessons from this study. You might think that brooding like a method actor will intimidate others into making concessions, but doing so could backfire if your counterpart sees through your act. And when you sense that others may be steaming inside, swallow your fear-don’t try to appease them by overcompensating on concessions.