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Which is the more moral negotiator? The male or the female?

Monday, July 9, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Men are often stereotyped as “in it to win it”. It is as though everything is a competition and therein lies a tough lesson when it comes to ethical behavior. When it comes to competition, ample research tells us men have lower moral standards than women (e.g., win at any cost).  And while it’s tempting to say this is all about guys being guys… well, in this case, you are probably right.

New research says that when men feel their masculinity is threatened, the ends justify the means. You defend your masculinity and your honor. No matter what.

So researchers decided to test both genders on ethical issues by seeing who was more willing to lie to an elderly couple selling their beloved home of 40 years with the expectation that the buyer would maintain the home.

Participants read a scenario from an ethics advice column in the New York Times Magazine:

“I have an opportunity to buy the property of my dreams. The problem is that the elderly couple who have lived there for more than 40 years love the house and assume that I will maintain it. I intend to tear it down and build a more modern house on this beautiful property. If I reveal my plan, they may refuse to sell me the house and the land. Am I ethically bound to tell?”

In the first scenario (above), the buyer’s intent was to tear down the old house and build a new house on the property. The experiment asked participants to specify whether the buyer was morally obligated to reveal their true intent. Men were more likely than women to say it was fine to withhold true intent from the seller. This feeling was stronger among those men who perceived a successful negotiation as indicative of masculine prowess.

In one follow up scenario, participants were asked to take on the role of either a buyer’s agent or a seller’s agent and determine if they were morally obligated to tell the buyer of the seller’s intent to destroy their [beloved and memory-rich] home.

In another follow-up study, subjects were asked if it was ethical to deceive a prospective buyer by lying about having other competing offers to purchase some stereo equipment. In this second scenario, they were asked to imagine they had lied or that another person had lied–and then to evaluate the moral correctness of that lie.

In all of the above scenarios, men set the bar lower than women. They were more likely to withhold information on the buyer’s intent from the trusting and aged couple selling their beloved home replete with forty years of memories and they were less likely to condemn the use of a lie in the follow-up studies. Scientific American offers a succinct summation of the findings:

“Thus, men’s moral judgments varied in such a way as to maximize their own advantage in each negotiation process; when necessary for personal gain, ethical missteps were acceptable. By contrast, women made similar ethical judgments across all perspectives. Even when the ethical choice was clearly detrimental to personal success, women maintained their ethical standards.”

“A final study used the aptly-named SINS scale (self-reported inappropriate negotiation strategies), which assesses individuals’ willingness to violate ethical principles in a variety of negotiation settings. Once again, men were more willing than women to engage in shady tactics: they were more accepting of techniques like making false promises, misrepresenting information, and sabotaging their opponents. This was especially true for men who believed that negotiation prowess was an innate and integral part of their masculine nature – that good negotiators are born, not cultivated.”

The researchers refer to this tendency as “male pragmatism” and suggest this ethical gap is a gender-based reality. They review the research and say that when men’s masculinity is threatened, they become more aggressive. Conversely, if a woman’s femininity is threatened–there is no change in her level of aggression.

[We would observe that aggression or irritation is generally thought to be a common response to assaults on key features of self-esteem and identity regardless of gender. The difference here may be in the form the response takes in men versus women.]

Men over-compensate, say the researchers, and see negotiations as masculinity tasks that reflect on their own masculinity when they fail or succeed. Men and women simply approach negotiations from a very different perspective–and men have what the researchers refer to as more “ethical leniency” in tactics used during a negotiation process.

The researchers close their article by wondering aloud if a “Bernadette Madoff” would have committed equally unethical acts as the real Bernie did. They think not.

“Male negotiators derive considerable leeway in setting ethical standards, rendering them more vulnerable to ethical lapses.”

From a woman’s perspective, this is not very attractive and certainly unethical and unfair. From a man’s perspective, negotiation is about winning. From our perspective, if two women are negotiating, you are likely going to have two players with the same rule book for behavior. If one of the people negotiating is male, the rule book may well have impromptu, unshared and situationally-specific modifications.

You might want to consider that when setting up your next mediation, negotiation or settlement meeting.

Kray, L., & Haselhuhn, MP (2012). Male pragmatism in negotiators’ ethical reasoning. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


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