When Power Corrupts

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Does Power Corrupt in Negotiation?” First published in the Negotiation newsletter.

How does power affect negotiators? In a study of hundreds of pairs of negotiators, researchers Elizabeth A. Seeley of Amherst College and Wendi Gardner and Leigh L. Thompson of Northwestern University examined this question using a simulation called “Viking Investments” (written by Len Greenhalgh).

In this simulation, one member of each pair was clearly more powerful than the other. In the first part of the study, the high-powered party was “primed” for the negotiation in one of two different ways: through exposure to a story that focused on the benefits of either interdependence (cooperating on a task) or independence (working on one’s own). Social psychologists have noted that primes-seemingly small events in the recent past-can prompt major differences in how people perceive information and behave.

Participants were told that the primed story was irrelevant to the current study. Yet the typical high-powered party was much more generous in the simulation when she was exposed to an interdependent prime than when she was exposed to an independent prime, and interdependent primes led to a greater likelihood of the parties’ reaching agreement.

Next, the researchers looked at whether having a three-party team representing each side of the dispute varied the results. It did. In fact, the effects reversed. That is, the high-powered party with an interdependent prime focused only on interdependence within the three-person team and became less generous to the other side. It seems that, in this case, the opponent remained outside the scope of the prime. In addition, the interdependent prime marginally raised the likelihood of impasse when three parties were on each side.

As Seeley and colleagues show, a negotiator’s most recent experience can have surprisingly large “carryover” effects. You need to monitor these effects in your own behavior and consider how they might affect your opponents’ behavior.