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Why Older Adults May Struggle with Negotiating

When older adults negotiate, they may miss outcomes that benefit both parties.

Key Points:

  • A recent study suggests that older adults may find it more difficult than younger adults to reach "win-win" agreements in negotiations.
  • Older adults appeared less likely to share their own priorities in the negotiations, seemingly preferring to keep their preferences close to the vest.
  • Challenges in taking another person's perspective appeared more pronounced in older adults, potentially heightening their negotiation challenges.
  • Making a point to talk about what you want in a negotiation—or bringing a younger companion along to help—may help older adults reach workable compromises.

For many people, the typical stance they take when negotiating with others is competitive. Negotiation is a form of conflict resolution in which people with different goals try to work out an arrangement that best meets their goals. Taking a competitive stance assumes that your goals are typically misaligned with those of your negotiation partners, so that what is good for you is not going to be good for them.

A problem with taking this stance is that there are often aspects of a negotiation in which the interests of the parties are aligned. Suppose, for example, that you are negotiating with a landlord about a new apartment. You might want to delay moving into the apartment for three months. At times, landlords might be trying to rent an apartment right away, which would be a conflict, but the rental company might want to do some work on the vacant apartment, and so having several months to do that work might actually benefit them as well.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Surprisingly, there are many situations in which people don’t find win-win situations. A significant reason for this difficulty is that when you assume a negotiation is competitive, you treat information as a valued resource. Any information you give to your negotiation partners could potentially be used against you. As a result, you may be reluctant to divulge your priorities, for fear that if other people know what you want, you might be exploited.

Do Older Adults Find It Harder to Reach a Compromise?

A paper in the November 2020 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Cathleen Kappes, Jan Hausser, Andreas Mojzisch, and Joachim Hufffmeier finds evidence that older adults finding it particularly difficult to achieve these win-win outcomes.

In one study, younger adults (with an average age of 23) and older adults (with an average age of 72) engaged in a negotiation game. The pairs who negotiated with each other were either both young, both old, or one was old and one was young. In the negotiation task, one person was randomly assigned to be a tenant looking to rent an apartment, while the other was assigned to be the landlord.

The pair negotiated about four dimensions of the rental (which included things like the date for move-in and the amenities in the bathroom). The negotiation was set up with a scorecard so that each participant knew they would get a particular number of points for each possible outcome. Each player was trying to maximize the number of points they got at the end of the negotiation.

This setup allowed the experimenters to vary the importance of the dimensions for the participants. A particular dimension might be worth a lot of points to one participant, but not the other. In addition, it allows the experimenters to vary whether a particular dimension is competitive or cooperative. On competitive dimensions, the point structure is opposed, so that outcomes that yield a lot of points for one participant give few to the other and vice versa. On cooperative dimensions, outcomes that yield a lot of points for one participant also yield a lot for the other.

In this study, there was no significant difference in the way participants performed on the competitive dimensions. All pairs found some kind of compromise along these dimensions. However, the pairs consisting of two young people consistently did better on the cooperative dimension than did pairs involving at least one old person.

Why Older Adults Fall Short in Negotiations

An analysis of the transcript of the negotiation suggests that this happened because the pairs involving two young people were more likely to talk about their priorities in the negotiation than were pairs involving at least one old person. Essentially, if you don’t talk about what you want, you can't incorporate that information into the proposed outcome. Another study in this paper replicated this finding.

A key question that emerges from this work is whether older adults simply don’t want to talk about their priorities or whether they have difficulty using information about other people’s priorities to formulate a strategy for negotiating. To address this question, another study asked young and old participants to read a transcript of a successful negotiation. In this negotiation, the partners talked about their priorities and ultimately reached an agreement that found the win-win dimensions.

Participants read the transcript while looking at the four dimensions of the negotiation and the various levels of each of those dimensions. After reading the transcript, participants had to give their assessment of the ideal outcome for the negotiation taking into account the priorities of each participant. While everyone did fairly well on this task, the younger adults performed significantly better than the older adults.

This result suggests that older adults not only tend to talk less about their priorities, but they may not be as skilled at using information about priorities when that information is available. The authors explored whether this difference was a result of difficulties that older adults have in taking someone else’s perspective. The results suggested that this is a possibility, but more work is clearly needed.

Practically speaking, these results suggest that older adults might want to consider bringing someone younger with them to negotiate to ensure that they don’t miss out on opportunities to help everyone get what they want.

References

Kappes, C., Häusser, J. A., Mojzisch, A., & Hüffmeier, J. (2020). Age differences in negotiations: Older adults achieve poorer joint outcomes in integrative negotiations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(11), 2102–2118. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000762

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