Shake On It

Handshaking promotes better deal-making

Shake On It

Like any ritual, a handshake may seem like a bizarre gesture when you really stop to consider it. “Why do we touch hands and move them up and down?” says Haas Asst. Prof. Juliana Schroeder.

In research forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Schroeder found a profound effect to the simple ritual: Shaking hands can improve the outcome of negotiations for both sides.

“When you shake hands with someone, you make an immediate inference: ‘They are going to cooperate with me; they are not going to do me harm,'” she says. “And so you decide to cooperate with them.”

In her study, co-written with Jane Risen of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Francesca Gino and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, the researchers tested how handshakes changed negotiations in a series of experiments involving classic negotiation games.

In one game, for example, two participants negotiated over a car, considering six aspects including price, color, and model. Each participant had different goals in the negotiation, some of which were aligned and some of which weren’t, and they scored points based on how many of their goals they met. Participants were not prompted to shake hands, but researchers noticed that when partners decided of their own accord to start their negotiations with a handshake, both ended up scoring more points overall.

For those entering business negotiations, a handshake can be a surprisingly easy way to demonstrate that spirit of cooperation, perhaps leading to a better, fairer deal for both sides.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that shaking hands produced that outcome. In order to test cause and effect, she and her colleagues set up a new negotiation over a job offer, this time encouraging some partners to shake hands before negotiating while asking others to sit down before they had the chance to shake.

Once again, those who shook hands reached greater agreement and scored more points. Moreover, when viewing the videotaped exchanges, observers scored how cooperative the two negotiators were. The pairs that shook hands scored more points and also lied less, tended to talk more after the negotiation was over, and leaned closer to each other while talking.

In zero-sum negotiations, in which one side had to lose in order for the other side to win, handshaking also made a difference. In that experiment, involving a real estate transaction, the “seller” had the opportunity to withhold crucial information from the buyer to drive up the price. When the participants shook hands, however, sellers were more likely to be honest and divulge that information, even if it meant they achieved a lower price overall. “People said they felt less comfortable lying to their partner when they shook hands,” says Schroeder.

Schroeder believes that the ritualistic gesture of handshaking has a psychological effect. “It changes the way you perceive not just the other person, but the way you frame the whole game,” she says. “You say to yourself, ‘Now we are in a cooperative setting rather than an antagonistic one.'”

For those entering business negotiations, a handshake can be a surprisingly easy way to demonstrate that spirit of cooperation, perhaps leading to a better, fairer deal for both sides. “It’s a seemingly small gesture that influences negotiations,” Schroeder says.

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