Mimicking Increases Odds of Success in Negotiation, Says Study

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

“Think like the other person” is a common piece of negotiating advice, but acting like the other person might be an even better tactic. According to a new study, negotiators who mimic simple gestures, postures and mannerisms of their counterparts find greater success at the bargaining table.

The study, titled “Chameleons bake bigger pies and take bigger pieces: Strategic behavioral mimicry facilitates negotiation outcomes,” found that not only does mimicking help the “chameleon”—the person doing the mimicking—win a greater piece of the pie, it also results in a larger overall pie for both parties. "Negotiators often leave considerable value on the table, mainly because they feel reluctant to share information with their opponent due to their fears of exploitation," explain the study's authors, business professors William W. Maddux of INSEAD, Elizabeth Mullen of Stanford, and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern. "By creating trust in and soliciting information from their opponent, mimickers do indeed seem to bake bigger pies at the bargaining table, and consequently take a bigger share of that pie for themselves."

Put more plainly, imitating the other person makes them more trusting, more relaxed and therefore more open. By getting the other party to open up, a negotiator has a significant advantage, but the potential for gain improves for the other party as well, as their true needs become the focus of the negotiation. (It should be noted that the study indicated that mimicking might not work in zero-sum negotiations—i.e., negotiations in which there can only be a winner and a loser, with no possibility for win-win outcomes.)

In one experiment conducted during the study, 31 pairs of MBA students tested the value of mimicking in a mock negotiation for the purchase of a gas station. The terms of the hypothetical negotiation had been set up so as to make a deal almost impossible—the highest price the buyer was willing to pay ($500,000) was lower than the lowest price the seller was willing to accept ($553,000).

Unbeknownst to the buyers, however, there was another consideration on the seller’s part that was of equal importance as price. The seller, according to the scenario of the experiment, was suffering from burnout and desperately wanted to sell the station in order to take a vacation. However, upon returning from vacation, the seller would need to seek employment—ideally as a manager of the gas station, under the new owners. The key to the negotiation, then, lay in the buyers’ ability to get the sellers to reveal a sensitive piece of information (i.e., the fact that they were exhausted, wanted to take a vacation, and were concerned about their future employment.)

Half of the buyers were instructed to mimic but none of the sellers, since the intent of the experiment was to see if the buyers could get the sellers to reveal that sensitive information by using mimicking techniques.

The results were dramatic: 10 of 15 pairs where the buyers mimicked achieved a deal, but only two of 16 pairs in which no mimicking took place reached a deal. The study concluded that mimicking resulted in the buyers’ achieving heightened trust from the sellers, which proved critical in facilitating deal-making.

Another experiment illustrated how mimicking can lead to greater overall value for both parties. In that experiment, 104 MBA students were paired off to conduct a half-hour-long negotiation exercise between a job candidate and recruiter. Negotiator pairs were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: in one, the candidate was instructed to mimic the mannerisms of the recruiter; in a second, the recruiter was instructed to mimic the candidate; in a third, neither negotiator was instructed to mimic.

Eight issues were involved in the negotiations. On two of the issues, the candidate and the recruiter were in complete opposition, and there was no possibility for a win-win outcome. On another two of the issues, the candidate and the recruiter were in total agreement; they both wanted the same outcome.

The other four issues were the key to the experiment. On two of these issues, the job candidate had a strong interest in winning the negotiation, while he or she was less interested in the other two issues. On the recruiter’s part, their interests mirrored the candidate’s interests—i.e., on the two issues that the candidate was strongly interested in, the recruiter did not have a strong preference, while on the two issues for which the candidate was not interested, the recruiter did have a strong preference.

The experiment was designed to facilitate the ability of the negotiating partners to “bake a bigger pie” by trading concessions. If the candidate conceded on the two issues that were important to the recruiter, and the recruiter did likewise, then the overall gain for both negotiators would be greater. The greater question was this: could mimicking techniques increase the odds of a win-win outcome by encouraging both parties to share information openly and honestly?

The results say yes. The investigators found that "when either the candidate or the recruiter mimicked their opponent, the [pair] earned higher joint gain relative to when no one in the [pair] mimicked their opponent.” Moreover, in analyzing the individual results, “mimicry enhanced benefits for the party doing the mimicking (i.e. value claiming), but it did not adversely affect the party being mimicked."

The study, "Chameleons Bake Bigger Pies and Take Bigger Pieces: Strategic Behavioral Mimicry Facilitates Negotiation Outcomes," was among several thousand studies presented at the Academy of Management meeting Aug. 5-8 in Philadelphia. Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has about 18,000 members in 100 countries, including some 10,000 in the United States.