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Men cheat more than women in negotiations, study finds, but only with male opponents—and handsome ones at that

November 7, 2017

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, (718) 398-7642, press@aom.org

Are men better negotiators than women? The prevailing view in both popular lore and the scholarly literature is that they are, and, while no consensus has emerged on why this should be, a number of studies attribute it, at least in part, to men's propensity to negotiate more unethically than women do. Other studies, though, have found little or no difference between the genders on this score.

Now, some new research approaches the question in a novel way – and in the process not only illuminates why previous research has produced mixed results but provides some practical management advice.

Yes, men do tend to be less ethical negotiators than women, concludes the study in the current Academy of Management Journal. But this immorality is highly circumscribed, being largely driven by intrasexual competition and coming to the fore only in men’s negotiations with their most serious competitors in this regard – namely, attractive men.

The new research, by Margaret Lee and Madan M. Pillutla of the London Business School, Marko Pitesa of Singapore Management University, and Stefan Thau of INSEAD, takes its cue from recent studies in human evolution that have connected various aspects of male behavior, such as risk-taking and non-conformity, to the eternal competition among men to gain the favor of women.

As the authors explain, "Men can reproduce almost an unlimited number of times...which resulted in men evolving to be less selective than women in choosing potential mates. The lower choosiness of men and the greater selectivity of women imply that…there will be a greater number of potential rivals for mates among men, and men will have to compete more fiercely to mate than women."

And so, the researchers continue, "in situations in which unethical behavior afforded the opportunity to outperform competitors more easily than what was possible through ethical means, men who engaged in such behavior could have gained an important advantage over men who did not behave unethically."

Where is the evidence that male intrasexual competition significantly drives unethical negotiating? The paper uncovers it in three studies – one in the field and two in the laboratory.

For the field study, the researchers recruited employed adults from a participant pool maintained by a behavioral lab of a business school. One hundred thirty-eight participants, averaging about 33 years of age and divided about equally between men and women, completed two e-mail surveys a week apart.

The first survey, which ascertained that the participants engaged in negotiations in their work, also elicited information on their jobs, on demographic and personality traits, and on how much (from 1/not at all to 5/extremely) they pursued such non-work activities as artistic endeavors, charitable work, and, most pertinently, “romantic/sexual activities.”

The second survey gauged participants’ ethical standards as negotiators through their response (on a scale of 1/never to 7/always) to statements probing how frequently they employed such unethical negotiating tactics as intentionally misrepresenting information to their opponents or offering to make future concessions that they knew would not be forthcoming in order to coax immediate concessions from their opponents.

The researchers report that “men negotiated more unethically than women but only when their mating motivation [as measured by pursuit of romantic/sexual activities] was high.” Indeed, the extent of women’s mating motivation evidently had little or no effect on their propensity to negotiate unethically, whereas men high in mating motivation (roughly in the top 15%) were about 25% more likely than those low in this measure to do so.

The authors see the results as “supporting the reasoning that the greater level of unethical behavior in men compared to women is in part a consequence of evolved tendencies for intrasexual competition for mates.”

In two experiments, conducted via computer with participants recruited through business-school behavioral labs, the researchers seek to elucidate this effect further. If intrasexual competition is indeed, a factor, they reason, “then we should see the higher level in intrasexual negotiation behavior only when men negotiate with other men but not when they negotiate with women.” Moreover, since “attractive men present more formidable mating competitors than unattractive men…consequently men should exhibit more unethical negotiating behavior…with more rather than less attractive male opponents.”

In one experiment, 317 subjects, about equally divided between male and female, were asked to assume the role of a buyer in a negotiation with someone with the gender-neutral name of Morgan Tomlinson who, unbeknownst to them, didn’t exist but whose face was displayed on participants’ computer screens. Participants were assigned to represent a hotel group wishing to buy a historic property from an owner strongly opposed to its use for commercial purposes, even though that is exactly what the buyers have in mind. Participants were asked to communicate to Morgan Tomlinson what the property would be used for, with their instructions indicating that they were not obliged to tell the truth but not obliged to lie either. Objective outsiders unaware of the experiment’s purpose were asked to judge whether the statements were deceptive or not.

For half the participants Morgan Tomlinson was male, for half female; on half the computer screens Morgan’s face was attractive, on half unattractive. In addition, prior to the negotiation, mating motivation was introduced into the experiment, as participants were asked to view and memorize 10 pictures of men’s and women’s faces (supposedly as part of a second experiment on facial recognition), which were either all attractive or unattractive.

In sum, these various combinations resulted in eight groups of participants differing in one or another variable. Of the eight, only one group produced significantly more deceptive than non-deceptive responses to the fictitious Morgan Tomlinson – namely, the group consisting of males who were negotiating with an attractive male Morgan and whose mating motivation was activated by viewing and memorizing attractive faces. In the words of the study, “the mating motivation made men, but not women, negotiate more unethically but only when negotiating with other men, and this effect was stronger when the male opponent was attractive than when the male opponent was unattractive (in which case the effect was not significant).”

A second laboratory experiment, for which 375 participants were recruited, introduced some variations to the first one. Beyond confirming basic findings of that earlier experiment about males’ propensity to behave unethically, it also revealed that, when women’s mating motivation was activated, they increasingly engaged, if not in outright deception, than in what the authors call “dodging.” This consisted in avoiding the question of the property’s future use and simply choosing to state that their “very interested” client would make a “very attractive offer” and that this would surely lead to an agreement. On the basis of this additional finding, the researchers conclude that “when the unethical behavior is a less severe violation [than outright lying], women high in mating motivation show a similar pattern to men in choosing to engage in unethical negotiation behavior.”

In conclusion, the authors see their study not only as making a novel contribution to organizational scholarship but as having practical value for managers. As they write, “When concerns about unethical negotiation behavior are large (e.g., when the temptation to behave unethically is high), managers may want to assign females to negotiate rather than males…Teams with very few women but many men may entice more unethical behavior than more equally balanced teams.”

The paper, “Male Immorality: An Evolutionary Account of Sex Differences in Unethical Negotiation Behavior,” is in the October/November issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published six times yearly by the Academy, which, with about 18,000 members in 113 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. Its other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.

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