NEW YORK, NY – Rather than attempt to persuade their closest loved ones on hot-button issues, 66% of Americans planned to steer clear of politics at the Thanksgiving table. Additionally, 85% of Americans who negotiate job offers end up reaping some benefit, yet 58% forgo the bargaining table and accept the initial offer as-is. New research from Columbia Business School reveals why people are so quick to avoid these potentially uncomfortable situations and lose out on the potential benefits.
In a new study, Columbia Business School Assistant Professor of Business Shai Davidai and co-authors Columbia Business School PhD candidates Mike White and Genevieve Gregorich find that when given a choice, the fear of conflict leads people to actively avoid situations they perceive as zero-sum, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss. This phenomenon holds true even if one party won’t have to suffer at the expense of the other. This desire to dodge opportunities that are – or perceived as – zero-sum is referred to as zero-sum aversion.
“It’s easy for people to get ahead of themselves and think certain situations are destined for conflict,” said Shai Davidai, Assistant Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. “But, people ought to take a step back and consider whether or not these are actually win-lose situations and determine if there’s a path towards a win-win situation before they miss out on real, material gains.”
Prior studies have examined people’s behavior once they’re in zero-sum situations, but Professor Davidai and his colleagues’ work is the first to look at people’s decisions to engage with zero-sum situations in the first place. To examine this, the researchers conducted thirteen studies where people had to decide whether to enter or forgo different situations involving a potential gain. The studies included different premises – including negotiations, market entry decisions, performance reviews, job applications, games with monetary outcomes – and enlisted different types of participants that included online participants, MBA students, and community members. Across all thirteen studies, participants demonstrated zero-sum aversion even when it came at a real, monetary cost.
- The fear of conflict leads people to avoid zero-sum situations. People are worried that zero-sum situations will ignite conflict or stir animosity and would rather avoid those situations altogether than reap the potential benefits at hand.
- But, when that fear is assuaged, people are no longer averse to situations they subjectively perceive as zero-sum. If people are explicitly told not to worry about potential conflict – such as a situation where employees can talk about difficult topics without fear of repercussion – they will no longer avoid zero-sum situations.
- People may also overcome their zero-sum aversion when there is a substantially higher payoff available. In situations that are objectively zero-sum – such as performance evaluations that evaluate employees relative to each other – participants demonstrated they will overcome their fear of conflict when there is a substantially higher payoff available, like a larger-than-average salary raise.
The full study, The Fear of Conflict Leads People to Systematically Avoid Potentially Valuable Zero-Sum Situations, is available online here.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researchers
Shai Davidai is Assistant Professor in the Management Division of Columbia Business School. His research examines people’s everyday judgments of themselves, other...Read more.