Walking the Talk in Multiparty Bargaining: An Experimental Investigation

by Kathleen L. McGinn, Katherine L. Milkman & Markus Nöth

Overview — Talk can unite, but it can also divide. In multiparty bargaining, communication can focus parties on a fair distribution of resources, but it can also focus parties on a competitive distribution of resources. As HBS professor Kathleen L. McGinn and coauthors Katherine L. Milkman and Markus Nöth show through experiments, at the onset of interaction the dominant logic in discussions—be it fairness or competition—strongly influences the equality of payoffs even in complex, full-information multiparty bargaining. Increases in the relative frequency of talk about fairness are associated with payoffs closer to an equal split. Talk about competitive reasoning has the opposite effect, driving payoffs away from an equal division, though these effects are less consistent than fairness talk effects. The researchers' results add critical insights to our understanding of the role of communication in multiparty bargaining. Key concepts include:

  • In multiparty bargaining, as in two-party bargaining, communication may work in part through social awareness and in part by allowing players to threaten to walk away.
  • Communicating the willingness to walk away, in conjunction with loss aversion by stronger players, may help weaker players convince stronger players to move toward a more equal split of the available surplus, but it also permits strong players to threaten weak players.
  • In a competitive, multiparty game, communication may play a more nuanced role than observed in simpler bargaining contexts.

Author Abstract

We study the framing effects of communication in multiparty bargaining. Communication has been shown to be more truthful and revealing than predicted in equilibrium. Because talk is preference-revealing, it may effectively frame bargaining around a logic of fairness or competition, moving parties on a path toward or away from equal-division agreements. These endogenous framing effects may outweigh any overall social utility effects due to the mere presence of communication. In two experiments, we find that non-binding talk of fairness within a three-party, complete-information game leads toward off-equilibrium, equal division payoffs, while non-binding talk focusing on competitive reasoning moves parties away from equal divisions. Our two studies allow us to demonstrate that spontaneous within-game dialogue and manipulated pre-game talk lead to the same results. Keywords: communication, fairness, bargaining. 28 pages.

Paper Information