One way we can broaden our thinking and increase our mental flexibility when making decisions is by relying on a greater physical distance to a problem. One example of this is problem-solving negotiations.
Long gone are the days when collective decisions were made face-to-face. Nowadays a lot of it happens by distance. There are a lot of downsides to this trend, but there might be certain advantages as well: research on construal-level theory suggests that physical distance can help people to think more broadly, which helps to get over non-essential roadblocks and reach more integrative decisions in negotiations and other settings.
Research on Face-to-Face vs. Non-Face-to-Face Negotiation
Some earlier research suggests that non-face-to-face negotiating is detrimental to integrative agreements (i.e. win-win outcomes). Yet, this research was done when most people were still unaccustomed to internet and other new technologies. Therefore, the findings of the earlier studies probably revealed not as much the general unsuitability of internet for negotiation, but rather people’s discomfort with new technologies.
More recent studies, albeit limited, have found little or no difference in negotiation outcomes between face-to-face and non-face-to-face negotiations. Yet, it would be an exaggeration to claim that face-to-face negotiation has lost all advantages; for example, trust, which is crucial for successful negotiation, is usually more difficult to establish in non-face-to-face negotiation. In addition, many cultures around the world remain dedicated to face-to-face negotiation, so it is highly unlikely that in the near future all international negotiations will shift online.
When Non-Face-to-Face Negotiation Can Be Beneficial
While it may be possible that electronic negotiation can be sometimes as effective as negotiation done face-to-face, it doesn’t mean that it will usually be such. For example, a recent study by Marlone Henderson has shown that effectiveness of non-face-to-face negotiation depends on perceived distance between negotiators. In online negotiations, negotiators who think that they are separated by a large amount of distance achieve better outcomes than negotiators who think that their negotiation partners are in the same building.
Construal-Level Theory and Negotiation
The main reason for this effect is the construal level. Higher level construal leads people to think about the gist of the problem, to adopt a broader and more global consideration of events and objects; lower level construal, on the other hand, leads to a narrower and more localized consideration of the problem.
Thus, when negotiators think that they are separated by a large distance, they tend to think about the negotiation pie more globally, which makes them more likely to exchange trade-offs on low-priority issues, and this in turn makes it more likely that negotiators will reach mutually satisfactory agreements. But if negotiators are primed for lower-level construal, they are less likely to achieve win-win agreements even if they think that a large amount of distance separates them.
So one lesson that we can draw from this research is that when want to have a more global and strategic view of the problem it is better to initiate negotiations when we’re separated by a large distance. Of course, none of us will want to travel to another country or half-way around the world just to create more distance so that we can gain a broader perspective. The more general lesson here is to focus on higher-level motives and prime the other side to do so as well. One easy way to prime higher-level motives is to constantly ask ourselves and the other side “why” we are negotiating this agreement and steer away from trifling details.
- Henderson M.D. (2011), Mere Physical Distance and Integrative Agreements: When More Space Improves Negotiation Outcomes, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47: 7–15