Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is clearly a brilliant guy. Besides being a star at one of the world's top universities, he's written a string of bestsellers (one of which is Bill Gates's favorite book of all time), and dispenses some of the best, pithiest writing advice you'll ever hear. But even the smartest folks in the world are baffled sometimes. 

On Big Think recently, Pinker admits one thing that confused him was negotiations. Why do we blow up conversations, storm away from good offers, or stubbornly stick to demands when both parties would benefit from compromise? This goes against basic psychological logic that people generally do what helps them the most. 

But as Jeff Bezos has noted, the hallmark of true brilliance is the willingness to admit what you don't know and seek out answers. Which is just what Pinker did. What he discovered was a surprise to him, and will be one to many leaders too: Being an irrational hothead can actually he a very smart move in a negotiation.

A psychologist learns a little game theory. 

Pinker explains in the short video that when he was looking to understand what looked like irrationality in negotiations he turned to game theorist Thomas Schelling and his classic 1960 book The Strategy of Conflict. Schelling was an expert in nuclear deterrence who worked on figuring out when and how to respond to and issue nuclear threats. Pinker saw that his theories could apply to buying a car as well as a standoff with the U.S.S.R. 

Pinker gives the example of a situation where the buyer has anywhere between $20,000-30,000 to spend (though obviously wants the cheapest price possible) and the dealer makes a profit on any sale over $20,000. This seems like a good basis for a mutually satisfactory negotiation, but how do the two parties settle on an exact number? 

Based on his reading of Schelling, Pinker points out that: "The advantage goes to the person who's more irrational, stubborn, hotheaded--the person who would walk away from the deal unless he got the maximum." The salesman who says his supervisor (who is conveniently out of the office) hasn't authorized a sale under $30,000 wins. The buyer who claims the bank only gave them $20,000 often does. 

In short, having the outcome be out of your control can pay dividends for a negotiator, and being irrationally stubborn is one way to credibly claim to be out of control. When it comes to issuing threats (Pinker offers, "I'll beat you up if you don't stop flirting with my girlfriend" as an example), actually being irrational enough to live up to them gives you an advantage. 

"They can't call your bluff if it isn't a bluff," is Pinker's succinct way of putting it.  

In short, sensible sounding advice about trying to find win-win solutions that benefit everyone certainly has its place. It's what psychology would suggest is the best approach. But we all know people actually often get emotional in negotiations. Those people look crazy but they're often not. Being irrational can pay off. If you don't understand that before going into a negotiation, you're being naive. 

Plenty of caveats 

While Pinker's argument about the value of irrationality is clearly useful, I sincerely doubt he means it as an invitation to be an emotional hothead in every negotiation. 

Many times, for instance, negotiations take place in the context of long-term relationships. You buy a car from the same guy again and again, and use the company to service your vehicle. In situations like these, blowing up the relationship by being stubborn might pay off in the short term but hurt you over time. Life is full of situations like these. 

Likewise, being the kind of guy who would punch someone for flirting with his girlfriend probably means fewer people will chat with your lady friend. We can all agree that doesn't make it a good strategy for cultivating a lasting relationship over the long-term. 

It's also important to point out that a mountain of academic research shows women face different expectations, constraints, and tradeoffs than men in negotiations. Some techniques that work for a male negotiator are useless for a female one (and vice versa). It's also been shown that women face stiffer penalties for being seen as aggressive. Your social context matters when figuring out what constitutes an effective negotiating style. 

All of which boils down to this: Don't write off getting emotional in negotiations (or fail to prepare for the other party doing so). It's not as crazy a strategy as it first appears, but it's clearly not a one-size-fits-all solution either. 

Published on: Jul 11, 2019
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