Cognitive Framing in Negotiation

Cite this article as:"Cognitive Framing in Negotiation," in The Business Professor, updated October 22, 2017, last accessed August 8, 2020,

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What is “cognitive framing” in the context of negotiation?

A “cognitive frame” is the subjective mechanism through which people evaluate and make sense out of situations, leading them to pursue or avoid subsequent actions. Ury, Brett, and Goldberg (1988) proposed an approach to framing disputes that view parties in conflict as using one of three frames:

• Interests-based frames ̶ People are often concerned about what they need, desire, or want. People talk about their “positions,” but often what is at stake is their underlying interests.

• Rights-based frames ̶ People may also be concerned about who is “right”—that is, who has legitimacy, who is correct, or what is fair.

• Power-based frames ̶ Negotiations resolved by power are sometimes based on who is physically stronger or is able to coerce the other, but more often, it is about imposing other types of costs – economic pressures, expertise, legitimate authority, and so on.

Other common characterizations of cognitive frames include:

• Substantive frame – This is a focus on what the conflict is about. Parties taking a substantive frame have a particular disposition about the key issue or concern in the conflict.

• Outcome-based frame – This is a party’s predisposition to achieving a specific result or outcome from the negotiation.

• Aspiration frame – This is a focus on satisfying a broader set of interests or needs in negotiation.

• Process-based frame – This is a focus on how (the process by which) the parties will go about resolving their dispute.

• Identity-based frame – This is a focus on how the parties define “who they are.”

• Characterization-based frame – This regards how the parties see and define the other parties.

• Loss–gain frame – This regards how the parties define the risk or reward associated with particular outcomes.

It is difficult to know what frame a party is using unless the party tells you. An individual’s frame through which they interpret communication may create or be the source of biases. Negotiators can use more than one frame at a time. Mismatches in frames between parties are sources of conflict. Parties negotiate differently depending on the frame. Particular types of frames may be used with certain types of issues or lead to particular types of agreements. Parties are likely to assume a particular frame because of various factors, and a frame may change throughout a negotiation. For example, the negotiation context clearly affects the way both sides define the issue and conversations that the parties have with each other about the issues in the bargaining mix.

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