We often think of negotiation as a process that goes on between two people: there’s our side of the table and their side of the table, both trying to reach some solution that accomplishes their interests. Many negotiators focus on those two sides, but forget the table in between them. That’s a mistake, because even something as mundane as the physical environment for a negotiation can make a real difference in how the parties interact.
This may seem counterintuitive to you, especially if you’re an experienced negotiator focused on the bottom line. But experts in human behavior have studied the effect, called “priming,” extensively. We discussed some of the research, dealing with the influence of media on children, in an earlier piece. And in 2004, researchers from Stanford and Yale published an article detailing several practical experiments they ran to test the effectiveness of priming in a business environment.
In one of their experiments, they divided the participants into two groups. They asked each group to focus carefully on a set of images; the experimental group had to sort pictures of business-related objects like briefcases and boardroom tables. The control group sorted pictures of random objects like power outlets and phones. Then every person was given $10, and told they could divide the money however they liked between themselves and an unknown counterpart. They could keep all the money, keep most of it, split it evenly, or divvy it up however else they wanted to. The counterpart would be allowed to reject their proposal, though, in which case no one would get any money.
In the control group, the ones who had seen the neutral images, over ninety percent of the participants chose to split the money evenly. In the experimental group, which had been primed with images reminding them of the competitive business world, only one third of the participants chose an even split. The rest chose to keep all or most of the cash for themselves, running the risk that their counterpart would kill the deal. In other words, just being exposed to pictures reminiscent of a business environment powerfully affected the participants’ behavior as they decided how to divide the cash.
If that sounds like an interesting idea but one that doesn’t really apply in the real world, don’t worry—the researchers followed up with another, even more interesting experiment. They asked two different groups of people to play the same game, choosing how to divide $10. This time, instead of asking participants to focus on pictures, they used the actual environment. The experimenters controlled the room where their subjects prepared for and played the game. Half the participants were primed: they sat at one end of a boardroom-sized table, and used a fancy, expensive pen to fill out their forms. On the other end of the table was a leather portfolio and briefcase. They watched the scientists remove paperwork from the briefcase, filled it out with the fancy pen, then deposited it in the briefcase. The other half of the participants worked in a neutral environment; they had a backpack instead of a briefcase, filled out their forms with a pencil, and dropped them off in a cardboard box.
When questioned afterwards, none of the participants were aware that they had been manipulated. But the environment did change their behavior. Every single member of the control group, the one that prepared for and played the game in a neutral environment, chose to split the money evenly. But half of the experimental group, which had been primed in an environment that suggested a business environment, tried to keep most or all of the money.
In practice, this means that the environment has a much greater role on the way people behave in negotiations than most people suspect. It’s not uncommon for the hosts of a negotiation to try to use the environment to their advantage: put the vendors in a stuffy room to discourage them from wasting time, or meet a counterparty in the fancy boardroom to impress and intimidate them. But this might be a mistake, since power moves like that prime the other side for competition. It would be better to prime them for a collaborative negotiation, by providing a comfortable environment. Often savvy negotiators choose to sit side-by-side with their counterparts rather than across the table. (Unless they’re not enthusiastic about an agreement, in which case they might sit not only across the table, but across a table so big that it’s hard to hand documents directly across.) Or they may choose to play golf, as long as no one in the group is feeling particularly competitive about the game.
The priming effect should influence how we enter negotiations as well. A phone call prior to submitting a written proposal or demand letter sets up the recipient’s expectations, giving you a bit of influence over how your documents are received. And the early stages of a negotiation, where it’s perfectly appropriate to break the ice, may be the worst time to talk about sports, bad weather, traffic, or anything else that jars the kind of cooperative, creative mindset we want to encourage in negotiation.
Priming is not mind control. It will not force a counterparty to agree to a proposal that doesn’t make commercial sense, or keep them from walking away if their interests aren’t being met. But the effects are much greater than many people would believe. And the influence is exactly what we want to see in negotiation: creating a collaborative environment makes it more likely that the parties will find a solution that maximizes value for both sides of the table.