Though less bloody than intergroup strife, business negotiations can turn ugly, too, especially when one party engages in dirty tactics. In an as yet unpublished study psychologist Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University asked mock negotiators to imagine the tactics that the person on the other side of the table would be willing to use—a classic method for fostering perspective taking. What he found was startling: “When you thought about the other person, you were more likely to act unethically,” Galinsky says. Considering a competitor's position even caused negotiators to act unethically toward other people, for example, by lying to an experimenter about how well they performed on a task that was unrelated to the negotiation.
Galinsky believes that the competitive nature of business negotiation may produce a sense of threat, causing perspective takers to disproportionately focus on a rival's nefarious plans to cheat and cajole. This emphasis on others' malicious intent could encourage both sides to employ dirty tactics, especially when they perceive a threatening tone: “When you're in a cold state, perspective taking can warm you to cooperation. But when you're in an inflamed state, thinking about the other person's mind changes perspective taking from the glue that binds us together to the gasoline that worsens the competitive fire,” Galinsky says. This insight could apply to a number of situations in everyday life: circumstances in which people are upset or angry (think marital spats) might make surprisingly bad ground for perspective taking.
At first blush, Bruneau's and Galinsky's findings appear bleak. Perspective taking might help friends and colleagues cooperate if they are likely to do so anyway. Just when it is most needed—combative situations in which interpersonal understanding is badly lacking—perspective taking backfires. But the news is not all bad. Bruneau's research suggests a relatively simple way to smooth encounters between warring factions: permit members of the less dominant group to engage in perspective giving first. This work implies that in more commonplace clashes such as those between a student and mentor or an employee and boss, the person in power should make a point of allowing the less dominant individual to feel that he or she is being heard.
For business negotiators, similar framing tactics might help. Negotiations are often perceived as zero-sum: gains for one side must come at a loss to the other. This perception can ramp up the “hot” affective states that render perspective taking most damaging. Negotiations can also be couched as positive-sum, however, in which both parties can potentially gain. For example, a car salesperson and a buyer might have competing goals—pushing a car's price higher or lower, respectively—but they also have the larger, mutual goal of getting a transaction to occur. Focusing on such shared, positive-sum goals might facilitate agreement.
Stepping into another person's shoes is one of the most important aptitudes of humans. It allows us to cooperate on a grand scale and often fuels our desire to guard others' well-being. Yet instead of treating this shift in point of view as a cure-all, understanding its failures can give us a window into social interactions and tell us when—and how—getting inside someone else's head can best help us get along.