Adapted from “In Negotiation, Think Before You ‘Blink’,” by Max H. Bazerman (professor, Harvard Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter, October 2006.
Most experienced negotiators trust their instincts. They believe they can identify a good business opportunity within five minutes. They think they can quickly assess whether a salesperson is honest. And if you asked these experienced negotiators what they do when their instincts collide with objective analysis, the vast majority would say they go with their gut.
New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 bestseller Blink reinforces the trust that professionals place in their first intuitions, or what Gladwell calls “rapid cognitions.” In his engaging book, Gladwell scans the psychological literature and uncovers fascinating nuggets of knowledge. Documenting numerous stories in which split-second decisions, or “blinks,” led to successful outcomes, Gladwell concludes that rapid cognitions can be as effective as more deliberate and thoughtfully made decisions.
Blink is likely to have made negotiators feel even more comfortable relying on their first impressions. Unfortunately, this trust in intuition is unwarranted. For example, relying on your instincts in negotiation can actually cause you to be less ethical.
As Harvard University’s Mahzarin Banaji, the University of Washington’s Tony Greenwald, and the University of Virginia’s Brian Nosek’s research on implicit attitudes has powerfully shown, even people who strive to be fair-minded and unprejudiced engage in stereotyping. When you walk into a negotiation, you’re likely to make subconscious snap judgments about your opponent based on his appearance and mannerisms—judgments that could affect your decisions and outcomes. Fortunately, as you talk to your counterpart, your knowledge of him individuates, reducing the impact of stereotypes.
But encouraging people to trust their rapid cognitions will undoubtedly lead them to be more comfortable with their stereotypic judgments. Negotiators swayed by Gladwell’s stories will feel empowered to reduce their counterparts to stereotypes. Carnegie Mellon University’s George Loewenstein and University of California at Berkeley’s Don Moore have documented that our first instincts are more likely to be selfish and affected by conflict of interest than our more deliberative thoughts. The more we think, the more likely we are to reflect on our moral and ethical obligations and make the right choice.