Conflict may be common but humans are good negotiators

10 February 2014

Professor Nick Chater

Judging by the number of wars and uprisings the world has suffered in the 21st century you would think humans were poor negotiators

But behavioural scientists have found that we are actually extraordinarily skilled at negotiation; it is only in the rare occasions when negotiation breaks down that we become deadlocked.

Warwick Business School Professor of Behavioural Science Nick Chater says that common understanding and shared expectations are key to successful negotiations.   

“Almost every social interaction we have with another person involves some sort of give and take and most of the time it flows naturally - negotiation only becomes explicit when there is a problem or a conflict,” said Professor Chater on BBC Radio 4’s The Human Zoo.

“And the implicit negotiation which smoothes our interactions works best when we have a common understanding of the situation. For example in daily life, we know that land is our garden, and next to it is our neighbours. But when we don't have a common understanding of where the boundary lies, and, therefore, who has a right to prune a disputed hedge or dig up a disputed rosebush, then we need to negotiate actively, or conflict may ensue. So it is important that common rules and assumptions are on the table for all to see.”

An experiment on Radio 4 listeners showed that we can effortlessly reach a common conclusion with another person because we are good at reading situations. 

“To test human negotiation skills we put the participants into pairs and tested whether they could come to a common conclusion without actually communicating with each other,” said Professor Chater.

“First they were asked to think of a date at random. When we asked them to reveal the date they had thought of, the majority of people chose December 25, the same as their partner. The pairs also demonstrated similar, if not identical answers, when asked to pick a time and meeting place in London the next day, with one pair both choosing 12 o’clock at Trafalgar Square without having any interaction with each other at all.

“This is not a case of being able to read each other’s minds, it is simply our implicit negotiation skills at work. I’m not thinking ‘what would be an obvious choice for me’, or I would choice my birthday as the date; or choose to meet at my own house. We are both effortlessly thinking ‘what is a good choice for us'. So we can coordinate smoothly, sometimes without even saying a word."

A second experiment saw pairs given £3 to split between them. The end goal was that one of them must have £2 and the other £1.The result was that eight out of 10 of the players who were allowed to go first chose the £2 whereas most of the second players chose £1.

“This is because people are usually pretty good at figuring out what we should do based on what we think somebody else wants to do,” said Professor Chater. “Even the slightest clue can help us figure that out. We seem to know intuitively that if I am going first I have got the upper hand, therefore, I will choose the larger amount of money.”  

But Professor Chater says there are special cases in crisis situations which pushes negotiation to the extreme.   

“Negotiation is difficult when we have radically different interests, like both wanting control of a limited resource, such as water or oil, or different understandings of the situation. like who has a right to disputed territory," said Professor Chater. “Risky strategies such as brinkmanship and red lines can be used to try to force the hand of adversaries and may result in conflict that nobody wants.

“If enemies are waiting for each other to blink, it’s inevitable that sometimes neither of them will blink and disaster will happen.

“Sadly, when negotiation becomes brinksmanship, there is a real risk that conflict will occur, however bad this is for everyone involved. If each side is hoping the other will blink first, there is the real possibility that neither will blink and we end up with industrial disputes, legal deadlocks and even armed conflict.”

Listen to Professor Nick Chater on BBC Radio 4's The Human Zoo here.

To take part in The Human Zoo's online experiment click here.

Professor Nick Chater teaches Behavioural Sciences for the Manager on the Warwick Executive MBA and Principles of Cognition on the MSc Business.




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