Did you lie in your last negotiation?
That’s a provocative question, but a critical one, as negotiation has always been ethically fraught terrain, where people have a lot of incentive to act in self-interest, including by lying. Moreover, there’s evidence that “slips of integrity” are more likely in the virtual interactions the COVID-19 pandemic has forced most of us into.
Lying in business contexts can have astronomical costs, as suggested by the recent global scandals including Theranos, Wirecard, and others. So we need to understand what makes deception more likely in negotiation and other contexts, and what we can do about it.
Our new paper suggests lying in negotiation is linked to two interrelated factors: biological sex (as opposed to the social construct of gender) and situational cues. Specifically, we found that while men are more likely to lie than women when negotiating in a neutral context, competitive cues propel women to become as likely as men to deceive, while men primed to feel empathic will be as honest as women in baseline situations.
The findings imply people can take practical steps to recognize and influence situational cues to find the “sweet spot” in their negotiations and achieve more win-win outcomes.
Sex matters—but so does the situation
We conducted four experiments on the influence of sex and situational cues on negotiation behavior.
While being biologically male has been linked to self-focus that can lead to greater competitiveness and unethical behavior, studies suggest women show equal or greater willingness to transgress. Our research sought to reconcile these established trends by examining the role of situational cues.
In the first experiment, we examined how inclination to lie at the negotiation table might be triggered by the mere recall of situations in which people felt competitive, and how the same urge to deceive might be tamed if people recalled situations in which they felt empathy. In our study, both men and women did a short “thought experiment” to set the situational cue, and then we used the SINS scale, the gold-standard measure of deception in negotiation, to assess their intent to lie.
We found that for both men and women, the thought experiment strongly influenced their tendency to lie in a negotiation. Everyone reported greater willingness to lie when primed with “competition,” and everyone was much less likely to lie when primed with “empathy.” The simple cue was enough to increase or reduce intent to deceive.
Still, intending to lie and actually lying are very different things. Certainly, many if not most of us would consider lying to serve our self-interest, but it’s the actual act of lying in negotiation that we wanted to understand better. So, in the second experiment, we placed men and women in a behavioral scenario where they assumed the role of a rare-coin broker, then asked them to negotiate with a buyer (customer). The question was whether men and women would lie about having another customer willing to pay more for the coin than the target buyer. To be sure, lying about options that you don’t actually have is considered the “ultimate lie” in negotiation, and in some cases is even punishable by law.
We primed male and female participants to feel neutral, competitive, or empathic toward the coin buyer. In the neutral condition, we saw dramatic differences between men’s and women’s intention to lie. Twenty eight percent of men indicated they would lie to the customer, but only 11% of women did, suggesting men were nearly three times more likely to lie.
The critical question was whether those “base rates” would change depending on the relationship the participant was cued to have with the customer. In the competitive situation, men showed a slightly higher incidence of lying than in the neutral condition (36% compared to 28%); but women became over two times more likely to lie (24% versus 11%). Similarly, in the empathic situation, the incidence of lying dropped significantly for men. Only 6% acted deceptively, and only 5% of women did—nearly the same proportions.
In the absence of strong situational cues, men are about three times as likely to lie as women, but that all changes when the situation becomes competitive (women lie just about as much as men) or empathic (men are about as truthful as women).
The third and fourth experiments confirmed the differential effects of competitive and empathetic cues in more realistic contexts. We used the classic ultimatum game, in which one party must propose a division of a scarce resource and is tempted to lie about the resource’s size. Again, we found women are more likely to lie when cued to feel competitive, and men made to feel empathic were more likely to be honest. The base rates of lying among men and women are influenced significantly by feelings of empathy or competitiveness, closing the sex-based deception gap.
Change the cues to change the behavior
Our examination of lying among men and women in negotiation has two major implications, both of which suggest practical steps you can take when approaching your next negotiation.
First, lying in negotiation is linked to biological sex. That is, men are more willing to lie in a negotiation than women are, all things being equal. Males consistently display a greater tendency to fabricate or otherwise misrepresent to serve their self-interests when competing for outcomes or resources.
So, if you’re entering a negotiation with a male counterparty, be more vigilant about possible deception than you might be when interacting with a woman seated across the table. Short of assuming a male counterparty is lying, a “trust but verify” strategy may be the right one here.
But the second implication emphasizes the “all things being equal” part above. Rarely do negotiations take place in an emotional vacuum. In fact, most situations contain cues that can trigger competition or empathy. Thus, the social-psychological context is critical. As our research shows, cueing competitiveness or empathy makes negotiators more likely to act deceptively or honorably, respectively, overriding the effects of biological sex. So we can’t argue that “we’re just born this way,” locked by biology into specific modes of ethical or less ethical operation in negotiation and other contexts.
The idea, then, is to recognize how contextual cues might affect you and the counterparty (taking sex into account) and to take steps to move away from misrepresentation and toward cooperation. Change the context to change the behavior.
In thinking about your own negotiation context, aim for a self-management approach. That means identifying cues that could influence your behavior in an imminent negotiation. Having an argumentative phone call with a family member or watching a close game between your favorite sports team and a rival, for example, is likely to trigger a willingness to deceive by giving you a cue to be competitive. A heartfelt conversation with a friend or mentor, in contrast, will more likely motivate cooperation by priming empathy.
Regardless of actual pre-negotiation cues, you can prime empathy in yourself by thinking about a recent interaction with someone you feel close to, whether a family member, friend or colleague. On the other hand, as a woman entering into a negotiation with a man known for aggression, it may behoove you to prime competitiveness by thinking about a rival or recent interpersonal challenge.
The same applies to approaching your counterparty. Ahead of a negotiation, think about their context, and take steps to shift cues toward those related to empathy, where possible. For example, if meeting with a counterparty with whom you’ve engaged in hard-fought past negotiations, remind them of the good times you’ve shared rather than the battles you’ve waged. Even a simple statement like, “That was a great meal we enjoyed after our last meeting in New York” can prime empathetic feelings and lead to a more harmonious negotiation. For a counterparty you’ve never meet, asking about their welfare or finding common ground—such as having kids in college—can similarly evoke empathetic feelings before getting down to the matter at hand.
While biological sex remains immutable for most negotiators, context can be more easily shifted. Use the ideas here to think strategically about your next negotiation, and how best to prime yourself and your counterparty for a cooperative, win-win outcome.
Leigh Thompson is a professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Jason Pierce is an assistant professor of Management at the Bryan School of Business and Economics, University of North Carolina Greensboro.