Cognition and Biases in Negotiation Research - a review

The first chapter of The Handbook of Negotiation and Culture by Michele Gelfand and Jeanne Britt describes the emergence of negotiator bias as an area of negotiation research. The chapter, The Evolution of Cognition and Biases in Negotiation Research: AN EXAMINATION OF COGNITION, SOCIAL PERCEPTION, MOTIVATION AND EMOTION was written by Leigh Thompson, Margaret, Neale, and Marwan Sinaceur. They march purposely from the seminal studies in behavioral decision theory and the social cognition movement in social psychology to new studies focused on the emotional negotiator. Throughout, they concentrate on the negotiator rather than on the negotiation process.
Within cognitive negotiation research, they identify four categories of biases: cognitive biases, social perception biases, motivational biases, and emotional biases. They examine how landmark studies in each of these areas impacted the science and practice of negotiation.
Cognitive biases are systematic deviations from the norm in negotiation and decision-making situations. Two approaches characterize the research on cognitive biases. The first relates to misjudging the risk. The second assumes that people attempt to use previous knowledge structures to make sense out of a new situation. The authors provide a most helpful table which links type of cognitive bias, such as framing or anchoring, with the studies directed at that bias. Cognitive biases promote an individualistic approach to negotiation which is an inherently social situation. A good negotiator will attempt to reduce the effect of her or his own cognitive biases while recognizing and incorporating the counterpart’s biases into the process.

Unlike individualized cognitive biases, social perception biases are interpersonal and rooted in one’s view of social entities and social situations. The authors provide a similar table of social perception biases, such as illusion of transparency and perspective taking, linked to their respective studies. The table also includes what the authors describe as other-perception biases, such as extremism and fixed-pie perception about another party which deviate from an objective observation. The authors found the social perception biases approach lacking because it focused on the other party, the self and the interrelationship and ignored the goals and motivations that drive negotiations.
Distinguished from social perception biases which are chronically present, motivational biases are stimulated by one of four primary social goals identified as self-enhancement, closure and consistency, cooperation (maximization of shared goals), and accountability pressure. Again, the authors have included a bias/study table. Self-enhancement can be a particularly damaging bias because of its close relationship to the preservation and maintenance of self-identity, recognized as one of the most fundamental goals of human life. The bias quickly can ferment rigidity and result in conflict escalation, rather than resolution. Studies show that negotiators with accountability biases more vigilantly consider available information and alternatives than those without this bias. The overall effect of this bias on the negotiator’s position depends on the demands of the negotiator’s audience.
The authors conclude that emotional biases represent the latest addition to the pantheon of biases that affect negotiators. The author’s bias/study table illustrates the relatively few studies in this area. Perhaps because of the newness of the topic of emotional biases, the chapter’s distinctions between the causes of emotional biases are less clear than the previous listed biases. The authors suggest the negotiators exhibit emotional biases based on one or more of three misperceptions. The first is the inability to accurately read and judge the emotions of themselves and of other parties. They note that people have great difficulty predicting the existence and intensity of emotions. This lack of knowledge can lead to overconfidence or the illusion of transparency. The second misperception is the inability to accurately measure the duration of the emotional state. Strong negative and positive emotions disappear quicker than is commonly believed. This miscalculation can lure a negotiator into a false assumption about the other party’s emotional state. The third misconception is the faulty belief about the causal effects of emotion on behavior. While it is true that emotions affect behavior, negotiators may misinterpret the emotion and, therefore, incorrectly predict the subsequent behavior. The authors very briefly note that emotional biases may be experienced by the participants during negotiations, however, they deferred to the in-depth discussion on this topic contained in Chapter 3 of the book.
Finally, in addition to the effects of the lower levels of emotions discussed previously, the authors delve into the impact of more intense emotions, such as anger, on negotiators and on the negotiation process. As expected, anger negatively affects negotiation, regardless of its cause and target. They identified three manifestations of the effects of anger on a negotiator. First, anger leads to misjudgment of their opponent’s interests. Second, anger may make a negotiator more self-centered which decreases the possibility of reaching an agreement. Third, anger may cause a negotiator to retaliate without considering the damage done to the negotiation. Fourth, anger can become contagious infecting both opponents and third party observers.
Following their discussion of cognitive biases, the authors metaphorically speculate on three new directions for negotiation research based upon recent studies in social psychology and cognitive psychology. The first metaphor is the preconscious negotiator who is influenced by individual mental processes and mental states of which she or he is not aware. The second metaphor is the situated negotiator who is not influenced by individual emotion or mental process, but by the emotion expressed collectively by the dyad, group, or organization which constitutes the constellation of those interested in the negotiation. The third metaphor is the negotiator as learner. This addresses the fundamental question of how to eliminate negotiator bias by teaching the negotiator. Hence, the negotiator becomes a learning organism.
The most important question raised is how best to eliminate cognitive, social, motivational, and emotional biases. Closely related to this question are three secondary findings which complicate formation of an answer: first, people overestimate their ability to learn from experience; second, people often cannot apply a concept learned in one situation to a different situation; third, adequate feeding is essential to learning.

The research review’s second implication defines a successful negotiator as one who not free of biases, but who negotiates better than her or his counterpart. Thus, understanding the impact of biases on negotiations is a goal of negotiator and scholar.

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