Taking a New Look at Impasse

Recent research indicates negotiators should not shy away from an impasse in their drive to make a deal.

By Jane Seago

Is any deal better than no deal at all? Not according to a recent study in which Ece Tuncel, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Management in the George Herbert Walker School of Business and Tech­nology at Webster University, participated. Results indicate that people are likely to reach any deal — even one that is disadvantageous to them — rather than accept an impasse.

Tuncel and her colleagues Alexandra Mislin, Ph.D. (American University), Selin Kesebir, Ph.D. (London Business School) and Robin Pinkley, Ph.D. (Southern Methodist University) examined the positive value of agreement versus the negative value of impasse. The study, “Agreement Attraction and Impasse Aver­sion: Reasons for Selecting a Deal over No Deal at All,” published in “Psycholog­ical Science,” focused on a series of tests designed to determine if people show an inclination to pursue an outcome that is perceived to be an agreement (over an impasse), even when the agreement is tangibly disadvantageous to them. In these tests, the test sub­jects were presented a variety of allocation scenarios in which they had to choose the option they would prefer. Sometimes the options were labeled “agree­ment” and “impasse” and other times “option A” or “option B.” Some options were advantageous, and some were disadvantageous. The key findings are:

  • Participants gave up value to attain an agreement and avoid an impasse.
  • So strong is the desire to secure an agreement that the labeling applied to the options (“agreement,” “impasse,” “option A” or “option B”) significantly affected the number of times certain options were selected — even though the options themselves were exactly the same, regardless of the nomenclature used.
  • Aversion to impasse is stronger than the appeal of agreement.


Tuncel elaborates, “According to previous research, there are several reasons we favor agreement, even a disadvantageous one, over impasse. We may believe that an agreement will solidify a future relationship. We may perceive impasse as failure. We may have an unclear view of our own goals. In this research, we propose a different, but complementary, reason. The tendency to prefer agreement over impasse may be evolutionary — reaching an impasse is perceived to be inconsistent with cooperative engagement, which is core to our very survival.”

Because the subjects in Tuncel’s tests were pre­dominantly living in the United States, she believes the results are fairly conservative. “American culture is generally characterized by a higher level of indi­vidualism than some other cultures. Thus Americans may be more attuned to personal gain, whereas indi­viduals in other cultures may value harmony and cooperation more. So, negotiators in other cultures may display an even greater tendency to pursue agreement over impasse, regardless of whether it is a better deal for them.”

Even those most experienced at sitting at the negotiation table may not realize that their own decisions and preferences are being shaped by human nature. She notes, “Agreement attraction and impasse aversion are human tendencies that many people have. We found through our tests that factors such as the negotiator’s experience or confi­dence do not necessarily reduce these tendencies.”

Tuncel advises carefully reviewing alternative options and knowing the company’s bottom line before entering a negotiation in order to avoid mak­ing premature concessions or deals. It’s also wise to avoid banking on any future benefit that may come from reaching agreement and instead focus on the current negotiation.

Words do matter

Of special interest is the fact that what the options were labeled mattered. Calling even a disadvanta­geous option an “agreement” tended to result in its being selected significantly more often than when the same option was tagged “option A.” The reverse effect was evidenced as well: an advantageous option was avoided more frequently when it was labeled “impasse” rather than “option B.”

This outcome has been further supported by research conducted by the authors. “We have done some follow-up research that indicates even mentioning the words ‘agreement’ and ‘impasse’ during the negotiation can affect the outcome,” she explains. “Even when these words are expressed in a neutral, non-aggressive way, such as ‘I hope we can avoid an impasse,’ they tend to guide the other party toward agreement.”

The bottom line, Tuncel says, is to “remem­ber that the goal for negotiation is not to reach an agreement. Negotiation often is defined as ‘reaching a deal,’ and success is measured on that outcome. But that’s not the case. Sometimes walking away is absolutely the best possible outcome.”

This article first published in the November 2016 issue of YPO’s “Ignite” magazine.

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