Biases that make negotiations fail

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Has it ever happened to you that you rejected a proposal, not because it was disadvantageous but because you didn’t like the counterpart?

The responsible for this behaviour is a little-known bias, but somewhat intrusive, that leads us to devalue proposals when they come from an antagonist. This is a prejudice that can make many negotiations fail.

Where it occurs

Imagine that Mary is arguing with her neighbour. She is exhausted, after years of disagreements, discontent and incomprehension. At some point, she realizes that something has to change or she will be forced to find another accommodation.

One day, Mary’s neighbour knocks on the door with a proposal: for a better waste management, she proposes a change in the logistics of the trash cans.

Mary admits that this agreement could be beneficial for everyone, but she is hesitant and starts making all the possible suppositions in her head: “Why would she propose me this agreement if she hadn’t already calculated all the possible benefits for her, rather than for me?”, “This proposal could be a trap”, and so on.

Although Mary had already identified a similar solution with her husband, she is uncomfortable about accepting the offer. Thus, she refuses. The evaluation of the proposal is blurred by the opinion about her neighbour and her reluctance to accept the terms proposed by the counterpart. This is a classic example of reactive devaluation.

It’s useless to say that this prejudice will contribute to irreversibly exacerbate the animosity between the neighbours.

The effects of reactive devaluation

Reactive devaluation can represent a significant cognitive obstacle in the resolution of conflicts. If we are not able to listen and consider others’ proposals in an objective way, we could be in the same stalling situations, which are harmful and costly, just think about what happens in countries at war.

The researchers Ifat Maoz, Andrew Ward, Michael Katz and Lee Ross have studied the impact of reactive devaluation in the negotiation between Israel and Palestine. The participants to the study (both neutral and pro-Israel) had received a fake written peace treaty, saying that it came from the Israeli Labor Party or a Palestinian organization.

Even if the peace treaty was the same in both case, both pro-Israel and neutral participants considered the proposal to be more advantageous to Palestine when it was coming from them.

When the researchers analyzed in depth the reasoning, they found more complex cognitive mechanisms. Pro-Israel participants had interpreted in a different way the meaning of some points of the treaty, as they were influenced by the political origin of the text.

The pro-Israel subjects, reading the plan written by Israel, interpreted “limited militarization” of the occupied territories as something similar to the presence of a city police force, while they interpreted it as something closer to the presence of a national army when reading the plan written by Palestinian people.

On the contrary, neutral participants did not interpret the point in a different way. In this case, the effect of reactive devaluation is evident. The meaning we give to words of others can cause misunderstandings and the rejections of concessions that are even much advantageous to us.

Has it ever happened to you that you rejected a proposal, not because it was disadvantageous but because you didn’t like the counterpart?

Why it happens

We have seen how the interpretative prejudice could produce relevant negative effects and validate our contempt towards productive offers and, so to speak, “peace treaties” and thus put limits to negotiation that can be even insurmountable.

In situations of extreme hostility, the parts are irrationally led to see the conflict as a zero-sum game, which means that the parts are so diametrically opposed that a gain for one is the loss for the other. Therefore, in a zero-sum game, each proposal coming from an adversary ends up being rejected.

The losses weigh more than the gains

To exacerbate the strength of reactive devaluation, in addition to the zero-sum game, there is the regret felt for losses. As demonstrated by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the pain we feel for a loss is greater than the pleasure we feel for a gain of the same entity. The fear of losses, or loss aversion, can prevent us from giving the right value to things.

In the case of negotiation, giving concessions is useful for obtaining in return advantages for us. But, when answering these requests, loss aversion can lead us to devalue a proposal from the start, since it could be perceived as excessive when compared to the gain we could achieve, and at the same time it could present the counterpart to us as a threat. The tendency to devalue and reject the negotiation could therefore be a strategy to protect us emotionally.

Managing to look at the situation in a rational and detached way, surely not an easy behaviour, could promote a more objective decisional process.

Where everything started

To understand what led the URSS and the USA to the arms race during the Cold War, Ross and his colleague from the University of Stanford Constance Stillinger have tried to understand what prevented the resolution of conflicts: both countries would have gained advantages if they had reached an agreement, since the continuous contrast in the major production and strategic sectors required an incredible expenditure of resources. In spite of this, the superpowers competed non-stop for forty years, leaving numerous victims on the field, in every way.

The two researchers conducted a survey in the American streets, to evaluate the positions of the participants about a mutual reduction of arms from both countries. The proposal was presented in three different ways: hypothetically written by the President of the United States Ronald Reagan, by a neutral country and by the President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev.

The results showed how the participants positively evaluated the proposal when it was presented by the US, less when presented by a neutral state and in a negative way when connected to the Soviet Union. Reactive devaluation caused distorted evaluations of the proposal, exacerbated above all by the negative associations that surrounded the Soviet Union.

The advice is to remember how reactive devaluation, although it may seem useful to protect us, most times acts against our best interests.

Laura Mondino


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