Social Comparison and Fairness in Negotiations

Cite this article as:"Social Comparison and Fairness in Negotiations," in The Business Professor, updated October 22, 2017, last accessed August 3, 2020,

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How does “social comparison” influence perceptions of fairness, and how can its effects be mitigated?

In determining what is fair, the nature of the relationship between the parties is particularly important. A negotiator will subconsciously undertake a process known as “social comparison”, which evaluates the negotiator’s social standing with regard to the other party. That is, is the counterparty a colleague (or equal in status), superior, or subordinate? A negotiator may take on a more needs-based approach in negotiations with superiors and subordinates. Negotiations with individuals of equal status are often marked by the equity rule. It may give rise to increased competition or tension in the negotiation with the objective of improving one’s position in relation to another’s. A negotiator in a superior social position may seek to reduce this emotional response to the disparity in a number of manners:

• Alter the Inputs – Alter any of the factors identified as affecting the negotiation. This may include altering the context of the negotiation, the timing, etc. If the negotiator is unable to actually alter the inputs, she may seek to alter the counterparty’s perception

• Alter the Outcomes – Alter the negotiation process and potential results of the negotiation. This may include altering (for oneself of the counterparty) the interests at stake (mixed-motive or move to integrative situation), the objectives (target point and optimal outcome), the alternatives (the resistance point and ZOPA), or the need for adjustment or concessions.

• Cognitively Distort Inputs or Outcomes – If the negotiator is unable to actually alter the inputs or potential outcomes, she may seek to alter the counterparty’s perception of the inputs or potential outcomes. This may be done through any effort that affects the counterparties cognition, such as logic or emotion. For example, convincing the other party that common sense dictates an outcome or appealing to the counterparty’s emotion (through empathy or sympathy).

A negotiator who is unable to either remove or reduce the source of inequity (or the perception of inequity) in a situation, as influence by social comparison, may find it difficult to effectively negotiate a distributive situation.

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