Want a better deal on a car? Put on your 'angry face'

Image: woman scowling
“If you come in with a scowl on your face, they’re going to take your threat more seriously,” said Lawrence Ian Reed, a researcher at Harvard University.Today

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By Linda Carroll

Skip the poker face. If you’re hoping to get a good deal on a car, or get people to do what you want, you should put on your best angry expression, a new study suggests.

“If you come in with a scowl on your face, they’re going to take your threat more seriously,” said study co-author Lawrence Ian Reed, a researcher at Harvard University. “You might think a poker face would be better in a negotiation. But in a bargaining situation when you make threats, your facial expression could add credibility to what you are saying.”

The finding is based on two experiments where volunteers were told they would be playing a negotiation game in which they would need to divvy up $1 with another player. If the two couldn’t come to an agreement, both would get nothing.

In the first experiment, 870 volunteers were told that they would either be proposers or responders. Before the proposers were to suggest how to divide up the dollar they were shown a video clip in which an actress, playing the role of the responder, threatened to break off negotiation if she wasn’t given what she wanted.

The actress put on an angry expression in the clips shown to half the proposers and a neutral expression in those shown to the other half.

The demands, for a 50-50 split or a 70-30 split, came in writing during the video.

As it turned out, an angry expression had no impact when the demand was for a 50-50 split. But when the demand was for 70 percent to go to the responder, an angry expression elicited better offers from the proposers.

In a second experiment, proposers were shown a video of “a typical responder.” Even in this case, the angry look prompted better offers.

So, should we fake it and glower at the people we’re negotiating with?

Reed suspects that it would work if we’re good at acting, but people have a limited ability to fake it persuasively. 

"The fact that people encode the signal pretty readily means that only a small minority can fake it," says Reed.

The new study, from researchers at Harvard and Stony brook University and just published in the journal Psychological Science, is the latest research to probe the connection between emotions and the human face. Earlier this year researchers at Ohio State University mapped 21 distinct facial expressions, including such complex ones as happily disgusted or sadly fearful.

The new study also might explain why face-to-face negotiations could be preferable to Internet interactions.

“Until we see someone, we don’t know what makes them sweat, or what makes them angry or happy,” Reed said. “You can do a lot of things over the Internet now, but people still choose to have face-to-face meetings.”

Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic and the recently released Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing's Greatest Rivalry.