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Has Negotiation Become More Sexist Since the Election?

March 10, 2017

It's a provocative title for a blog piece. It's based on a provocative piece of research. Not conclusive research, let's make that clear up front, but a study that's worth some serious thought.

 

In January two scholars at the Wharton Business School, Jennie Huang and Corinne Low, published an article titled Trumping Norms: Lab evidence on aggressive communication before and after the 2016 US presidential election. They report experimental evidence that suggests that "at least in the lab, Trump's election may have disrupted community norms around civility and chivalry."

 

What Did They Do?

 

Huang and Low had U Penn students play a "Battle of the Sexes" game in which each player were assigned a partner and asked to divide $20 according to the following payoff matrix:

 

In essence Player A could choose the $15, $5 option; if Player B agreed that would be the split, but if Player B disagreed, neither side would receive anything. (The paper's methods section doesn't describe the rules completely, so this is an oversimplification.)

 

Participants played against their own and different genders. In half the rounds the players could not communicate with each other. In the other half, they were allowed "unstructured chat communication." 

 

The researchers tested 232 subjects before the election and another 154 in the middle of November, about a week after Trump's victory. They drew their results from "over 3,000 game-level observations and 772 chat conversations." 

 

What Did They Find?

 

In each round, players are asked to choose how to divide $20 according to the table above. The researchers called the choice to keep $15 the "hawkish" or "aggressive" option. Because each player could change their approach over multiple rounds, there were various strategies possible. When players could communicate and agree to take turns receiving the $15 payoff, both sides profited more. Without such cooperation profits declined as the players couldn't coordinate their moves, or simply chose not to. That's standard for this kind of experiment.

 

What Huang and Low reported was a small but statistically significant "jump of about 5 percentage points" in players making aggressive moves:

 

 

Because aggression doesn't correlate to profits when the players can communicate, the more aggressively people played the less they earned. 

 

Communication is the key to this kind of game. In that, it models real-world negotiations. In fact, we've used similar games to train negotiators in the value of open and persuasive communication in coordinating mutually rewarding strategies. 

 

Here, the researchers reported changes in how their players navigated those communications following the election. For example, the "hard commitment" strategy ("I'm going to choose the $15 option, no matter what you do; if you agree you'll get $5, if you don't you'll get nothing.") became almost twice as common in the post-election groups. 

 

The study breaks the increase in aggression down along gender lines. Men negotiating with men did not become significantly more aggressive with each other. Men negotiating with women did. Tracking how players communicated with each other particularly, the researchers found statistically significant jumps in how the men communicated with women after the election:

 

 

The difference is especially pronounced because before the election, the researchers found that men were less likely to use aggressive strategies against women. (This is what they refer to as "chivalry" in the excerpt above.) After the election, they didn't just stop being chivalrous, they became markedly more aggressive towards women. For example, the post-election men were 140% more likely to use the "hard commitment" strategy when negotiating with women.

 

Is It True?

 

It's wise to take all such research with a grain of salt. These are fairly preliminary results, and don't appear to have been replicated anywhere--no one's had time to repeat the study. Huang and Low claim that their results are robust and controlled for confounding factors such as "age, non-white, liberal, citizen status, employment, gender, partner gender, gender reveal, and session controls such as day of the week, time, and game period."

 

On the other hand, there were additional factors that complicated the study. They specifically point out that the week of the election, black freshmen at the university where they conducted their research were subjected to grotesque racial harassment. The resulting furor included organized events supporting the victims, and heightened emotions may well have changed how people negotiated in the study.

 

Overall, the results showed a small but statistically significant and socially important change in the attitudes of negotiators. That's not entirely surprising, because we know that negotiators often change their behavior in response to external social cues. It is alarming given that the changes were biased towards aggressive, biased, and limiting behavior.

 

Additional research is needed to determine if the effects are real, whether they've persisted in the months following the election, and how extensive they are. That is not to say that it is safe to ignore this study. It demonstrates a disturbing shift in attitudes that may very well be indicative of a larger trend.

 

If you are negotiating, consider your own conduct in times of stress and fast-moving current events. You are not immune to the kind of pressures that can create these changes in behavior. If you are managing teams of negotiators, look for signs that external sentiments are biasing how your team interacts with their counterparts. After all, one of the lessons of the type of game Huang and Low had students play is that biased behavior isn't just illegitimate and unjust, it restricts profits for both sides of the table. 

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