Negotiating a deal? Clues on your opponent's psyche

March 10, 2011: 11:16 AM ET

If you want to know how someone is likely to react to a perceived slight, sneak a peek at his or her right hand.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

Let's say you recently turned someone down for a raise or a promotion, and he has now retaliated -- for instance, by quitting in a huff and taking a valuable client list with him.

According to a new study of the role of testosterone in business negotiations, you might have foreseen that, and maybe even prevented it, if you had checked out his right hand before making (or refusing) an offer. Specifically, if someone's ring finger and his index finger are the same length, look out.

Little or no difference in the size of those digits is an indicator of high prenatal testosterone, which tells you two things. First, this is a person who is preoccupied with preserving his status and saving face. Unless you handle his ego with kid gloves, he will be quick to take offense.

And second, if you cross him, he will get even.

That's the conclusion of an intriguing study called "Lex talionis: Testosterone and the law of retaliation," to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Lex talionis is Latin for "retributive justice," and here's how the experiment went down: Researchers from Columbia Business School and the Kellogg School at Northwestern put 48 randomly selected volunteers through two rounds of negotiations. The first bargaining session was rigged so that the test subjects were, in effect, cheated out of $40 they had thought they could win. In the second round, which the subjects were not told about ahead of time, the researchers turned the tables so that, this time, the volunteers controlled the bidding process for a second $40 pot.

Some people played fair during the second round, swallowing their disappointment at "losing" the first time and making reasonable efforts to reach an evenhanded outcome. Other subjects, however, responded quite differently. They aggressively lowballed the researchers, clearly determined to get payback.

After it was all over, the researchers used a flatbed scanner to measure everyone's right-hand index and ring fingers ("from the ventral proximal crease of the digit to the tip of the finger"). In every case, they found a direct correlation between "digit ratio" and vengefulness: The less of a difference between the two fingers, the greater the urge to get even.

Many other studies have established "digit ratio" as an indicator of prenatal testosterone -- that is, how much testosterone someone was exposed to before birth, often as a result of birth order (older children in a family tend to have more than younger ones) or a mother's genes.

But until now, the behavioral implications for negotiation strategy have not been clear.

"Testosterone is a hormone associated with status-seeking and a need to save face," notes Adam Galinsky, the Kellogg professor who co-wrote the study. "It makes a powerful difference in how people respond to situations.

"People with low testosterone -- that is, with a noticeable difference in the length of their second and fourth digits -- may perceive that they're being treated unfairly, but they're likely to go sulk in a corner."

However, Galinsky says, "If you're looking across a bargaining table at someone who has a slight difference, or no difference, between the second and fourth digits, be careful." Make an extra effort to mollify that person and stroke his ego, because doing otherwise is "like slapping a sleeping tiger."

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Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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