Anger is a Valuable Negotiation Tool—If It’s Real

New research suggests fake displays of pique are a very bad negotiating strategy.
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Negotiators from the Congress and White House will soon be back at the bargaining table, again attempting to hash out a budget-balancing deal. Given the high stakes, and the parties involved, it’s quite possible that as the hours drag on, someone’s temper will erupt.

Will that help his or her cause? Newly published research suggests it very well might—but only if that anger is authentic. Any hint that it’s phony will create even more distrust, leading the other side less willing to compromise.

“The effects of faking anger are different than the effects of showing genuine anger, or showing no emotions (during negotiations),” writes a research team led by Stephane Cote of the University of Toronto. “Genuine anger elicits concessions, but fake anger elicits demands.”

In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers describe two experiments that back up their thesis. In one, 140 undergraduates each watched a 90-second video of a “student” who was responding to an ad offering a used car for sale. After enumerating his concerns about the automobile, he said he would not pay the asked-for $3,500, and made a counteroffer of $2,400.

One-third of the participants saw a version of the video in which the actor playing the student showed no emotion. Another third saw him obviously pretend to be angry, with eyes glaring and jaw clenched.

The final third saw yet another version in which the actor was feeling genuine anger. (In a Method-like touch, he was asked to recall an event that made him feel angry, and then channel those intense emotions into the scene.)

After viewing the video, participants assessed the potential buyer’s toughness and authenticity, and made him a counteroffer on the car.

Not surprisingly, those who viewed the video featuring fake acting were less likely to describe the actor as authentic. More importantly, they responded to this apparent attempt to deceive by demanding a higher price than those who saw the emotionally neutral video.

Those who saw the video where the potential buyer was feeling real anger rated him as a tougher negotiator—and responded by offering the car at the lowest price of the three groups. Anger that seemed real was at least somewhat intimidating; anger that felt fake was off-putting and counterproductive.

“The findings show that individuals place particularly high demands, are relatively dissatisfied, and have relatively little interest in negotiating again with opponents who surface-act anger, because they have little trust in them,” the researchers conclude. “The same emotion—anger—has opposite consequences on negotiation processes and outcomes depending on … how authentic the display is perceived to be.”

So if White House or congressional negotiators are planning to intimidate the other side with some faux anger, they’d better make sure their team includes some very polished actors. Clint, here’s a chance to make up for your convention flub: That slow burn of yours can seem frighteningly real.

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