|A sense of physical distance encourages more abstract thought|
Negotiations that take place over computer, without face-to-face contact, have more chance of success when those negotiating think there is greater physical distance between each other. That’s according to Marlone Henderson who says the new finding is compatible with Construal Level Theory. This is the discovery that people think about things more abstractly when they perceive that they’re further away in time or space (e.g. see earlier). In terms of negotiations, thinking more abstractly is beneficial because it encourages negotiators to reflect on and express their underlying motives and priorities.
Across two studies, Henderson had over a hundred undergrads form pairs and negotiate via AOL Instant Messenger about either the purchase of a motorcycle, or ways to split several shared prizes. Crucially, some of the pairs were led to believe that their partner was located in a sister lab on the floor below, whereas other pairs were told that their partner was located thousands of feet away in a sister lab on the other side of town. The terms of negotiation were arranged such that each partner had different priorities, so it was possible in theory to reach vary degrees of mutually agreeable outcome.
Overall, the negotiating pairs who thought their partners were located further away, on the other side of town, tended to reach more mutually agreeable terms. To test if this benefit was to do with thinking about one’s priorities more abstractly, as Construal Level Theory would predict, Henderson conducted a further study in which some of the negotiating pairs were explicitly instructed to reflect on the motives underlying their negotiation goals. Receiving these instructions led participants who thought their partner was nearby to negotiate just as successfully as participants who thought their partner was on the other side of town, consistent with the idea that the perception of physical distance exerts its usual benefit by encouraging more reflective and abstract thought about negotiation goals. Other explanations for the main result – such as that partners located nearer to each other were more concerned they might bump into each other afterwards – were ruled out by participants’ questionnaire answers.
‘Our findings imply that negotiators might benefit from waiting until circumstances create a large amount of distance between them before they start negotiating,’ Henderson said. However, he concluded with a more profound message. ‘More and more, cultures are incorporating increased physical distance into fundamental aspects of human interaction, including distant learning and education, distant therapy and treatment, and distant political participation,’ he said. ‘Critically, social conflict can arise in any of these areas. The current research helps to understand whether increased geographical distance offers the potential to facilitate social harmony or magnify the social ills of our society, and represents the beginning of a systematic investigation of such issues.’
Henderson, M. (2011). Mere physical distance and integrative agreements: When more space improves negotiation outcomes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (1), 7-15 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.07.011