MIT Behavioral Research Lab

Checkmate: The power of implicit factors in negotiation

Close up of a game of chess where the white is checkmate

How researchers at the MIT Behavioral Research lab use physiological signals to take a deeper look at what occurs below conscious level as humans negotiate.

Negotiation is a real-life chess game. It has various tactics and strategies, each carrying a vital role that combined can render victory. The Pawns represent the different pieces of information and resources brought to the table. The Rooks, Knights and Bishops represent the words used to communicate. The Queen represents the attitude, confidence and authority displayed. And The King represents everything that occurs on a nonconscious level — facial expressions, speech features, emotional arousal, eye movement and any other physiological measure that can’t be consciously conveyed.

While effective negotiation requires all of these pieces to be played, the nonconscious remains King, considering that more than 90 percent of decision-making happens below conscious awareness. Despite their importance, nonconscious measures in negotiation, compared with their explicit counterparts, have long gone overlooked and understudied. That is, until a group of MIT researchers, led by Jared Curhan decided to take a deeper look at what occurs below conscious level as humans negotiate. Curhan is the Gordon Kaufman Professor and an Associate Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, as well as Faculty Director of MIT’s Behavioral Research Lab.

In a series of research projects over the past decade, Curhan and his team have examined various physiological and nonconscious cues during negotiation and their impacts on outcomes. As a result, they’ve built an entire ecosystem of research on factors in negotiation, made up of both implicit and explicit measures, that provides a fuller picture of human behavior — and writes the ultimate playbook on how to checkmate in negotiation.

What, specifically, did they find?


Impact of physiological arousal

Sweaty palms and a racing heart are often assumed to be the first signs of demise during stressful situations.

However, Curhan and his colleagues paint a more nuanced picture in their empirical investigation of these physiological factors and their effects on negotiation outcomes. They started by asking a group of research participants to share their attitudes toward negotiation, rating the extent to which they either dreaded or looked forward to it.

Later, participants were tasked with negotiating while walking on a treadmill at varying speeds — some at 3.0 mph, others at 1.5 mph. The research revealed that physiological arousal had a polarizing effect on negotiation outcomes. When participants had negative prior attitudes toward negotiation, arousal had a detrimental effect on outcomes, whereas when participants had positive prior attitudes toward negotiation, arousal had a beneficial effect on outcomes.

man in workout clothing running on treadmill
businessman talking while sitting on a couch


Impact of speech features

First impressions have the power to determine the outcome of a situation before it even unfolds. As humans, we often establish first impressions through conscious social signals such as clothing, seating arrangements or name dropping, but in a second project, Curhan and his team found paraverbal social signals during the first 5 minutes of a negotiation accounted for 30% of the variance in economic outcomes. Specifically, the research focused on four different speech features — activity (amount of time speaking), engagement (influence one person has on another’s conversational turn taking), emphasis (variation in speech pitch and volume) and mirroring (mimicking observable behavior).

Some speech features proved more effective for individuals of a certain status. For instance, activity (proportion of speaking time) was more beneficial for vice presidents, while vocal mirroring (mimicking observable behavior) tended to benefit middle managers.


Impact of silence

There are two theoretical perspectives when it comes to silence — an internal reflection perspective, whereby silence leads to a deliberative mindset, which, in turn prompts value creation; and a social perception perspective, whereby silence leads to intimidation and value claiming.

In a third project, Curhan and his colleagues tested these two perspectives, intrigued to find the impact of silence on negotiation outcome.

In doing so, they extracted silent pauses from negotiation discussions and measured their association with value creation and value claiming. The research supported the internal reflection perspective, showing that silence increases value creation by allowing time for internal reflection and fostering a more deliberative mindset.

man in business suit with arms crossed looking at camera

Curhan and his team believe there is much more to uncover, particularly as they integrate more physiological measures. The next phase of negotiation research will add the impact of facial expressions, using the iMotions platform, to provide an even fuller picture of human behavior in negotiation.

To learn what Curhan and his team of researchers find next, make sure to follow along on the iMotions blog.

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