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Flirting is a money loser in negotiations, new research finds

July 1, 2008

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

A common stereotype about women is that they are less effective negotiators than men - so much so that popular lore suggests women do well to bring a man with them when they buy a car.

In contrast, women are widely viewed as adept flirters; in a recent Harper's Bazaar survey of 500 professional women, for example, 86% said they would "happily flirt with a male colleague if it meant they got their own way."

So, can flirting enhance women's effectiveness as negotiators? Quite the contrary, according to new research. A series of experiments to be reported at the forthcoming annual meeting of the Academy of Management finds flirting to be a money-losing negotiating strategy for women and men alike. 

"Although lay intuition suggests flirting with one's counterpart is a sign of negotiating effectiveness, the results of our experiments suggest that flirting at the bargaining table is not an effective strategy for claiming value," conclude Laura J. Kray and Connson C. Locke of the University of California, Berkeley.

In fact, when it comes to obtaining a good deal, flirting has a "detrimental effect," even though flirtatious bargainers, women particularly, are judged by their opponents to be more "more likable" than non-flirts.

In one experiment, Kray and Locke employed a professional male and female actor to negotiate via videotape the sale of a fictional biotechnology plant. Each actor recorded two versions of responses to buyers. Although both versions followed the same script, one was in a neutral style and the other was in a flirtatious style that consisted of smiling, leaning forward, touching one's face or hair, and using a playful and animated tone of voice. The actors' negotiating opponents - in reality 78 undergraduate students - got the point: even though unaware they were bargaining with actors, 85% correctly identified whether their opponent was flirtatious or not.

And how did the flirtatious sellers do? The actors' responses were pre-recorded to reject three successive offers, so the variable of most interest was the buyers' final bids. Subjects paired with the flirtatious seller made an average final offer of $17,540,000, while subjects paired with the neutral seller offered an average of $20,870,000, almost 20% higher. The female actor came up especially short, "receiv[ing] worse offers by both male and female negotiating partners when her style was flirtatious rather than neutral. In contrast, the male actor was only penalized for flirting when his negotiating partner was male."

In a follow-up experiment to see if they would get similar results with face-to-face negotiations, the researchers recruited 158 students who were randomly divided between sellers and buyers of the biotechnology plant. The two groups prepared for the negotiation in separate rooms, and the sellers were given one of two sets of preliminary instructions. One set advised subjects to "be prepared, remain in your role, but at the same time act natural and be yourself"; the other instructed subjects to "be playful with your negotiating partner" but also to be "subtle enough that the other person does not know what you are doing." Sellers and buyers then paired off in cubicles and were given 15 minutes to negotiate.

Again the price was significantly lower for flirtatious sellers -- $21,510,000 compared to $22,800,000, a difference of almost $1.3 million.

While flirting did not prove a winning strategy financially, it proved to be a plus socially, at least for women: in both experiments women flirts were perceived to be more likable than women who did not flirt, while men were viewed as about equally likable whether they flirted or not.

Buyers' favorable view of flirts seems to have been unrelated to the fact that they were a soft touch financially. As Kray and Locke put it in their discussion of the experiment involving actors, "It does not appear to be the case that negotiators liked their flirting partner more [just] because they extended less attractive offers to them. Instead we suspect that negotiators liked their flirting partner more than the non-flirting version of this same person because it was flattering to be the object of their partner's flirtation. Just like the difficulty people experience in discounting the ingratiation attempts of others, negotiators are moved to like people who seem to like them. The fact that they simultaneously take advantage of their likable negotiator partners appears to be incidental to their greater enjoyment of them as people."

In contrast to this personal approval is the way flirting is perceived by individuals not involved in negotiations. In one experiment, 77 subjects viewed videotapes of actors playing either flirtatious or non-flirting sellers, and neither the male or female flirt was seen as more likable than their non-flirting counterparts, although the actress was judged more likable than the male, apparently because of her more appealing rendition of flirting. But flirting actors were judged to be less genuine and more manipulative than non-flirts; in contrast, buyers in the negotiation experiments described above rated flirts as more genuine and less manipulative.

The positive emotional impact flirts make on their bargaining opponents leads Kray and Locke to wonder if flirting might be a useful tactic in negotiations that are not wholly competitive. "Many negotiations have the potential to expand the pie," they write. "If a flirtatious style facilitates the sharing of information needed to be integrative and helps to build rapport, then it might also improve joint outcomes…We suspect flirting may result in an expanded pie..."

Their experiments, the authors conclude, "found uniform evidence of [flirting's] negative economic consequences but positive interpersonal consequences, particularly for women. This observed tradeoff begs the question of which currency is ultimately more important - a likable disposition or an ability to bargain hard. Answering the question would go a long way towards determining whether it is ultimately costly or beneficial to flirt."

The presentation, entitled "Negotiating Flirts: Likable Losers," will be among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management meeting. Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has more than 18,000 members in 92 countries, including more than 10,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw more than 8,000 scholars and practitioners to Anaheim, California from August 10th to 13th for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage:
Business Week. When It Hurts to Flirt. (Monday, July 28, 2008).
Daily Californian. Kissing that Bigger Paycheck Goodbye. (Thursday, August 07, 2008).
The Globe & Mail. You're Flirting with Failure if You Flirt. (Wednesday, July 30, 2008).
The Washington Post. Don't Bat an Eyelash. (Thursday, July 24, 2008).

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