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Theoretical Approaches to the Study of Negotiation

Sarah Ogilvie

Two compelling reasons explain why the field of negotiation has received considerable attention to date: The first is that negotiating with others is ubiquitous -- it is an unavoidable component of social life. The second reason is that most humans believe that they can obtain greater control over their lives by becoming more effective negotiators. As such, research into the phenomenon has been extensive.

According to Carnevale and Pruitt (1992), interest in negotiation has emerged from three perspectives. The first perspective can be characterised as being prescriptive and aims to provide advice to negotiators. This tradition was originally involved in helping industrial labour negotiators and international negotiators optimise the way that agreements were reached. In contemporary settings, these advice-oriented publications are geared towards the delivery of more effective management and human resource practices.

The second tradition was largely the province of mathematical theorists and economists who used game theory to explore how negotiators should behave (Raiffa, 1982). This approach was primarily normative in its orientation in that researchers assumed that people operated rationally during competitive interactions. Theorists such as Raiffa (1982) have commented that this approach assumes individuals are consistent in their behaviour, are able to perceive how their behaviour may lead to sub-optimal outcomes and are able to resist taking cognitive shortcuts when attempting to maximise their benefits. Although this approach is now regarded as limited, certain theorists such as Schelling (1960) maintained the position that game theory could provide disputants with advice on how to optimise their behaviour and thereby to "win" the contest of dispute. Given the aforementioned limitations, however, theorists began to consider how negotiators actually behave. This orientation marks the third tradition of negotiation research: the behavioural tradition, which despite its roots in game theory, primarily seeks to describe how negotiators actually behave when negotiating.

With the aim of describing behaviour, researchers in the behavioural domain have explored the reciprocal impact of motivation, cognition and emotion upon perception and behaviour in the negotiation process and the outcomes that ensue (Thompson, 1990). Economic and social-psychological measures have been used to explore negotiation. Whereas economic measures focus on the types of bargaining possibilities that are available to negotiators and the outcomes they reach, social-psychological measures assess individual perceptions of the negotiation situation, of the other party, and the self (Thompson, 1990). The current research used measures of both economic and social-psychological aspects of negotiation to assess the way individual negotiator perceptions are formed and change during the negotiation process, and the types of economic outcomes that result.

Research into actual negotiation behaviour has predominantly been conducted from one of three theoretical traditions: Individual differences approach, the motivational approach or the cognitive approach (Thompson, 1990). The individual differences approach examines the types of personal characteristics that affect negotiator behaviour, the negotiation process and the types of outcomes achieved. Research from this perspective might, for example, investigate negotiation behaviour as a function of gender (Walters, Stuhlmacher & Meyer, 1998), culture (Brett, 2000) or experience (Neale & Northcraft, 1986).

Motivational approaches, seek to establish how negotiator aspirations and goals influence bargaining behaviour and the resultant outcomes. Researchers interested in motivation essentially assess the way that certain aspirations for self and other affect outcomes and vary as a result of the negotiation interaction (Wilson & Putnam, 1990).

The cognitive approach attempts to ascertain how individuals construe events and reach judgments about courses of action during negotiation. This approach is grounded in information processing theory (Carroll & Payne, 1991), which essentially posits that, when individuals experience events, stored information is activated in the mind and is then used to reach the next decision. This activation and subsequent processing has been found to occur in an economically efficient manner (Thompson, 1990). Such efficiency, however, entails various cognitive shortcuts that impair judgments, thereby limiting a negotiator's effectiveness (Neale & Bazerman, 1991). Because these cognitive shortcuts are noted to occur with certain regularity, they are the topic of extensive research in the field of negotiation.

Of the three approaches to describing negotiator behaviour, the current research draws upon the cognitive psychological model in that it is directed toward understanding how individuals frame and incorporate information and how, in turn, these processes influence the negotiation. However, as will be further discussed in the following section, the theoretical underpinnings of the current research diverge from the traditional cognitive psychological approach. Whereas cognitive models regard negotiator biases as largely fixed perceptions that last for the duration of the negotiation, the current research rests on the assumption that perceptions alter as the interaction unfolds.

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