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Negotiating: Who Wins and Loses When You Play Hardball?

A team of researchers recently studied what happens when the stakes are high and negotiators won't budge.
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When it comes to high-stakes negotiations, playing hardball just doesn't add up. That's what a group of academics concluded after watching a series of game shows. 

No, this wasn't an excuse to get out of doing real research. The group had determined that the British television show Divided allowed them to study true high-stakes situations better than they could in the lab.  

To understand their results, you first need to know how Divided works: 

  • Three contestants work together to answer trivia questions and build up a jackpot. It can grow as large as about $185,000.
  • At the end of the game, the pot is divided into three unequal amounts -- 60, 30 and 10 percent of the total, for example.
  • Contestants have a few seconds to declare which portion of the pot they think they deserve and why.
  • Then the clock starts to tick, counting down from 100 seconds. With each second that goes by, one percent of the total disappears. Meanwhile, the players negotiate -- sometimes with lots of hostility. If they can't decided who gets what before the clock runs down, they all go home with nothing. 

If you have a few minutes, watch a clip from the show. It's fascinating to see how contestants react in this situation, and you might even recognize some familiar behaviors based on your own experience at the negotiating table.

The researchers analyzed a total of 43 games. To their surprise, they found that individuals were, for the most part, accurate when it came to gauging "moral property rights." In other words, they tended to assign the high, medium and low amounts of money to each other based on how much each had helped to build up the jackpot by answering questions correctly.  

The researchers had predicted that greed would cloud the players' judgements, regardless of how much or how little they had really helped the team.  

Not surprisingly, when two or more people disagreed, there was big trouble. About 20 percent of the teams went home completely empty-handed because they couldn't settle. And this happened often when the pot was relatively large. "We find that contestants are more likely to announce a hardball strategy if the stakes are higher," the authors wrote. 

In the end, contestants who played hardball tended to walk away with more money than those who made concessions. However, they did so at a large cost to their team's overall wealth, the researchers said. 

Last updated: Apr 7, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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