Twin peeks

Olin study of twins sheds light on two sides of negotiation table

A new Olin Business School study using twins suggests the importance of relationships. (Image: Shutterstock)

Haggling over fictional furniture in the 90-degree Ohio heat, more than 100 pairs of twins were integral in showing researchers, led by Washington University in St. Louis, the importance of negotiation traits on both sides of the table.

Hillary Anger Elfenbein

Conducted at an annual national twins festival by Hillary Anger Elfenbein, the John K. Wallace Jr. and Ellen A. Wallace Distinguished Professor and professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School, the study adds a new dimension to research in the field. Historically, negotiators have been seen as economically rational individuals acting in ways meant simply to maximize their outcomes. However, Elfenbein and colleagues found, using twins, that individuality matters. They also found it takes at least two at the negotiating table to tango; the nature of their relationship is critical to the outcome.

“Maybe there is no one best negotiator,” Elfenbein said. “Maybe the person you should send into a negotiation depends on whom you’re up against.

“What was not a surprise was that the twins did very similarly to each other. That was still a nice finding. What was more surprising, the twins were basically consistent between which people were relatively easy and which were relatively hard to negotiate with.”

To determine what role the relationship between negotiators plays when it comes to reaching a conclusion, Elfenbein’s team used a variance partitioning technique, an experiment setup in which two people interact with each other multiple times. This technique is based on the idea that personality-related behaviors are consistent over time. The more times a similar outcome is observed, the stronger the case that something about that relationship is shaping the result.

Arranging this kind of experiment, however, presented some challenges.

Twin twin studies

Todd Braver, professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences and of radiology in the School of Medicine, has been awarded a five-year, $2.5 million grant to continue his research into mindfulness training.

The unique approach he’ll use in this new phase of his work? “We will be studying identical twins, who are both initially naive to mindfulness,” he said.

One twin will be randomly assigned mindfulness training, the other will not. Both will undergo comprehensive neuroimaging before and after the training. Braver is working to understand the impact of mindfulness training on individual differences in cognitive control.

The Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award, from the National Institute of Mental Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is intended to provide long-term support to investigators whose research and productivity are “distinctly superior and whose are highly likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner.”

Are you and your identical twin interested in participating in this study? If so, call 314-935-8547 or email

“As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once argued, ‘A person cannot step into the same river twice,’”  the researchers — Elfenbein; Noah Eisenkraft of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Jared Curhan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Lisabeth F. DiLalla of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale — noted in their paper. Once two people interact, they cannot have a second, independent interaction; all future negotiations would be colored by the previous such meetings.

That’s where Twinsburg, Ohio, (outside Cleveland), home to the so-called “largest gathering of twins (and other multiples) in the world,” comes into play.

The annual Twins Day Festival each August provides dedicated space where scientists can connect with thousands of twins who are interested in participating in research. For this study, Elfenbein’s team was able to recruit 124 pairs of twins.

“Although it is never possible to step in the same river twice, the independent experiences of twins may reveal what happens when two similar people step into two similar rivers,” the researchers wrote. They worked with four sets of twins at a time in two separate tents of four negotiators, half selling the fictional furniture to the others. The round-robin negotiations paired each twin with the same pair’s counterpart in each tent.

“So when I was negotiating with you,” Elfenbein said, “my twin was negotiating with your twin.

“We didn’t know anything about the backgrounds of these people. But used furniture is something that we thought everybody could relate to,” she said. “And it’s something that’s common to negotiate.”

The twins got into it, Elfenbein said. “It was actually fun for them to do,” she said. Researchers also offered cash prizes to participants ranging from $1 to $20, depending on their successful negotiating outcome. (Five percent came to an unsuccessful stalemate). 

“Biblical miracles aside, if you paired up multiple Davids and multiple Goliaths, the Davids would win every time.”

-Hillary Anger Elfenbein

The first finding was that, as expected, each individual in a twinset performed similarly in their negotiations, relating to the concept that like-minded negotiators with similar behaviors and approaches can prove successful. The second finding, which speaks to the nature of relationships in negotiations, was that each individual twin found their corollary opponents similarly challenging. That is, if you found Opponent A to be particularly difficult, then your twin found A’s twin to be difficult as well.

“We interpret that to mean there are unique pairings in life, and some make for better rapport,” Elfenbein said. “No matter how good you are at negotiating, there are some opponents you will have an easy time with and some with you you’ll have a lousy time.”

In the paper, which has been published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers compare negotiating relationships to the face-off between a famous shepherd boy and an infamous giant.

“There’s a unique match where David was a very unique stone thrower and Goliath had a very big forehead, so this little shepherd boy could beat him — one big skill versus one big Achilles heel,” Elfenbein said. “Biblical miracles aside, if you paired up multiple Davids and multiple Goliaths, the Davids would win every time.”

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