By Steven G. MehtaSteve Mehta

Feeling slighted, miffed, or offended can influence how a person responds much more than being the recipient of perceived generosity, even if the net value of the social transaction is the same, the research on reciprocity—giving and taking—shows.

“Negative reciprocity, or taking, escalates,” said Boaz Keysar, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and lead author of the paper “Reciprocity is Not Give and Take: Asymmetric Reciprocity to Positive and Negative Acts,” published in the Psychological Science. The study was based on giving-and-taking games conducted on students and people in downtown Chicago.

The games provided data on how people respond to give-and-take social exchanges.

In one experiment, subjects were divided into two groups and asked to conduct experiments that began in two different ways using money. In the first group, one player learned that another player had $100 and was going to share it. In each situation, the player with the money gave the other player $50. When the roles were reversed, the players who received the $50 received $100 which they could share with the other players. In that exchange, those players gave their partners on average $49.50.

On the other hand, In a companion experiment, the researchers found when they changed the act to taking instead of giving, that the act of taking had a far bigger impact on people’s responses than did the act of sharing.  Just as in the first experiment, when the roles were reversed, the first players took back much more, leaving the partners with an average of $42.

Further, as each round continued, each person “taking” became increasingly greedy over repeated exchanges.

The study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Mental Health, and the Templeton Foundation, shows various social exchanges differ from those in the marketplace, where goods are bought and sold, Keysar said. “Acts of giving are perceived as more generous in social exchanges than objectively identical acts of taking,” Keysar said. “Taking tends to escalate.”

Applying the Research

Most studies involve positive reciprocity – the giving of gifts in anticipation of coercing positive action from the other person.  However, this study demonstrated that negative reciprocity can often be more powerful a motivating factor than positive reciprocity.  This directly applies to the litigation negotiation context.  Often in litigation, one party feels slighted.  Take for example, when an offer is made that is a “highball offer” or “lowball offer,” the other side tends to reciprocate with their own version of an offensive offer.  This research demonstrates that unless the cycle is broken, the conflict of negative reciprocity will continue to escalate.

Moreover, people are often also slighted by some action that occurred that instigated the litigation.  The same cycle of negative reciprocity and increasing escalation can substantially increase the transaction cost to the litigation by forcing parties to conduct more discovery, more motions, and more time and energy.

It is, therefore, important to break the cycle.  According to Louis Kreisberg, professor of sociology, all conflicts will escalate until a point of stalemate, and then only can the parties de-escalate.   As such, whether the conflict is the litigation or the negotiating offers, the parties must first come to a stalemate.  In negotiations, that means that the parties need to realize that the escalating moves that are “offensive” won’t work.   The parties need to realize that they won’t be able to achieve their goal by pursuing the “offensive offers.”  But that may take some time.  The parties won’t realize that there is a stalemate in the negotiations until several moves have taken place.

Second, after realization of the stalemate, the parties need to have some way to start to de-escalate.  Some ways that negotiators and mediators can break the escalation cycle is as follows:

  • Make a unilateral gesture of good faith
  • Change the focus of the negotiation
  • Take the initiative to identify the stalemate  — I.e. “we all know that these moves aren’t going to get us anywhere.  We need to get to the realistic negotiations, otherwise we will be at a stalemate forever.”
  • Make a small gesture whilst indicating a desire to receive such a small gesture also.  This is also known as GRIT, an approach developed by Charles Osgood.   In his original writing he said it stood for “graduated and reciprocated initiatives in tension reduction; later he simplified this to gradual reduction in tension.  The basic idea is that disputant can initiate de-escalation by making a small, unilateral (one-sided) concession to the other side, and at the same time, communicating a desire or even an expectation that this gesture will be matched with an equal response from the opponent.  If the opponent does respond positively, the first party can make a second concession, and a “peace spiral” is begun.  If the first initiative is ignored, Osgood suggests that it be followed by a second–or even a third–attempt.  These concessions should be designed to build trust, but should not be terribly costly (materially or strategically), nor should they suggest weakness.   However, they should indicate a willingness to transform the conflict to a more cooperative and less adversarial approach.
  • Apologize – whether this is for something substantive or procedural.  An apology can help to significantly de-escalate a conflict.
  • Take a time out from the negotiations so as not to escalate the conflict.
  • Identify that the conflict is escalating and that you do not wish to escalate – State your intention to de-escalate.
  • Ask the other side to help you de-escalate.  – Former enemies will becomes the greatest of allies when they share the common goal or enemy.