Study: Disgusting Sweaty Palms Sometimes Help With Business Deals

For those who already like negotiating, physical arousal can give an advantage. For those who don’t, it’s better to stay relaxed.
(Angelo González/flickr)

Problem: You have a big business meeting, or are negotiating with a used car salesman, trying to get the best price. You’re nervous, excited, or some combination thereof, and you can’t help it—your heart races and your hands get all moist in that gross way that makes the imminent handshakes in your future squelchy and harrowing.

But take heart, ye of sweaty palms. According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, what seems like an unfortunate physical quirk may put people at an advantage when negotiating, if they like negotiating. If they don't, it may make things way worse. Sorry.

Methodology: The researchers wanted to see if people’s prior positive or negative attitudes toward negotiation would be affected by physical arousal (not that kind, guys, the kind you get from exercising). First they surveyed a group of 247 undergrads about how much they dreaded or looked forward to negotiating.

84 of those students came back and negotiated with a conspirator over the price of a car on the phone while walking on a treadmill. Some of them walked at a three miles per hour pace (for higher heart rates), and some at a one mile per hour pace (for lower heart rates). After the negotiation, they completed a questionnaire about how they thought it went, and how they felt, rating negative traits like irritability, nervousness, and frustration, and positive traits like enthusiasm, contentment, and excitement.

Then, in a second study, the researchers let the participants bargain with each other over a fictional job compensation package while either sitting or walking around, this time with the goal of earning points for negotiating different issues successfully.

Results: However participants felt about negotiations already, their feelings were heightened when in the high-arousal condition. If bargaining already made them nervous, they only got more nervous as their heart rates rose. On the flip side, those who were excited to negotiate felt even better about it with racing hearts and sweaty palms.

This translated to economic gains as well. The high-arousal negotiation-lovers got more points than low-arousal negotiation-lovers, and vice versa for those who didn’t care for bargaining.

Implications: I guess this is a “know thyself” situation. If you know negotiating gives you butterflies, maybe try to relax before a big meeting. Do some deep breathing, have some soothing chamomile tea. If you’re totally psyched for a good haggle, go ahead, get worked up and let those palms drip.

The study, The Polarizing Effect of Arousal on Negotiation, was published in August in Psychological Science.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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