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In Negotiations, Anger Leads to Impasses

Better to keep a cool head when you’re attempting to strike a bargain.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Ryan Hyde/Flickr)

President Donald Trump promises to negotiate better trade deals for America. If he is to have any chance at succeeding, he had better learn how to control his already-famous anger.

That’s the clear implication of newly published research, which finds people with cool heads are more likely to eventually reach an amicable agreement.

“Expressing anger is risky in negotiations,” writes a research team led by Jeremy Yip of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “People infer that angry counterparts are selfish and become more likely to exit negotiations.”

In the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Yip and his colleague Martin Schweinsberg demonstrate this dynamic in a series of studies. The first featured 302 American adults recruited online who were assigned to play the role of landlord negotiating a rental fee for a studio apartment.

They were given a price range to stick with ($1,000 to $1,600 per month) and told they would get a bonus payment if they reached an agreement with the prospective tenant. What’s more, they’d get still more money if they made one of the three “best deals.”

After they made an offer (usually $1,500), the would-be occupant made a counteroffer of $1,000. Half of the accompanying reply messages simply read “Your offer is too high.” The others added “Your offer really pisses me off. This is an annoying way to start.”

The “landlords” then had the option of accepting the $1,000 offer, making a different offer, or walking away from the negotiations. The researchers report only 3 percent chose to exit if they received the neutral message, but 11 percent did so if they got the angry response.

The second study, featuring 187 university students, was similarly structured, except (a) this time, the negotiation was a job opening, with the participant playing the role of recruiter, and (b) participants were asked whether they felt the prospective employee was acting selfishly.

Once again, participants were far more likely to walk away from the negotiations if they were met with anger (14 percent vs. 2 percent for the neutral response). In addition, the potential employee was far more likely to be judged as selfish if he gave an outraged response.

A final study found this dynamic is particularly pronounced during the early rounds of a negotiation.

“Angry expressions promote negotiation impasses,” the researchers conclude. “Negotiators infer that anger counterparts are particularly selfish,” inspiring many to walk away.

It is unknown whether Trump, who is busy tweeting and watching cable news, has had a chance to review these findings. No doubt he prefers the conclusions of earlier research, which found expressing anger in a negotiating session sends the message that one is tough and assertive.

But if he’s planning to make threats, he’d better make sure the country he is negotiating with really, really wants to make a deal. It turns out that macho approach effectively elicits concessions only when the other party does not have the option of walking away.