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Just before a meeting with her boss, Cindy peeks into his secretary’s office and whispers, “How’s his mood today?” When the secretary gives a thumbs-up, Cindy decides the time is right to ask for a big raise.

                                   

Intuitively, most of us wait until others are in a good mood before presenting controversial requests. Moreover, we try to keep this strategic thinking under wraps.

Researchers Eduardo B. Andrade and Teck Ho of the University of California at Berkeley bring new evidence to bear on this conventional wisdom. They divided their study participants into pairs, randomly assigned them to roles, and asked the “proposers” to divide money between themselves and the “receivers.” Only two divisions were allowed: a “fair” 50-50 division or an “unfair” division – 75% for the proposer and 25% for the receiver. If the receiver said yes, the subjects received the proposed split. If the receiver said no, neither subject received anything.

In a twist on this prototypical “ultimatum game,” Andrade and Ho manipulated the receivers’ moods. They tried to put half in a happy mood, in part by showing them a funny sitcom, and the other half in an angry mood, in part by showing them a disturbing movie clip.

The proposers were told which film clip their receivers had watched. Some of these proposers knew that their receivers were unaware that they had this knowledge; these proposers made significantly more unfair offers to their receivers in the happy condition than to receivers in the angry condition. Other proposers knew that their receivers were aware that they had this knowledge; these proposers did not make unfair offers significantly more often.

In plain English: Cindy is likely to feel comfortable negotiating aggressively with her boss as long as she thinks he isn’t aware that she knows about his good mood. But suppose that the secretary announces, “I told her that you’re feeling great today!” when she ushers Cindy into the office. Now Cindy is likely to be inhibited from trying to take advantage of her boss’s expansive mood.

The study provides important defensive advice: discuss your positive feelings openly at the outset of talks.

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