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Conflict may be common but humans are good negotiators

Judging by the number of wars and uprisings the world has suffered in the 21st century you would think humans were poor negotiators but behavioural scientists have found that we are actually extraordinarily skilled at negotiation; it is only in the rare occasions when negotiation breaks down that we become deadlocked.

An experiment on Radio 4 listeners showed that we can effortlessly reach a common conclusion with another person because we are good at reading situations. Warwick Business School Professor of Behavioural Science Nick Chater explains:

To test human negotiation skills we put the participants into pairs and tested whether they could come to a common conclusion without actually communicating with each other. First they were asked to think of a date at random. When we asked them to reveal the date they had thought of, the majority of people chose December 25, the same as their partner. The pairs also demonstrated similar, if not identical answers, when asked to pick a time and meeting place in London the next day, with one pair both choosing 12 o’clock at Trafalgar Square without having any interaction with each other at all.

“This is not a case of being able to read each other’s minds, it is simply our implicit negotiation skills at work. I’m not thinking ‘what would be an obvious choice for me’, or I would choice my birthday as the date; or choose to meet at my own house. We are both effortlessly thinking ‘what is a good choice for us'. So we can coordinate smoothly, sometimes without even saying a word."

Professor Chater says that common understanding and shared expectations are key to successful negotiations but there are special cases in crisis situations which pushes negotiation to the extreme:

Negotiation is difficult when we have radically different interests, like both wanting control of a limited resource, such as water or oil, or different understandings of the situation. like who has a right to disputed territory. Risky strategies such as brinkmanship and red lines can be used to try to force the hand of adversaries and may result in conflict that nobody wants.

For more information

Listen to Professor Nick Chater on BBC Radio 4's The Human Zoo. Or to take part in The Human Zoo's online experiment click here.