Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Best Thing for Everyone: Negotiation Aboard the Serenity.

A scene from the cult-classic sci-fi series ‘Firefly’ presents us with a brilliant (read: amusing) example of negotiation. Without dropping too many spoilers on those who have not yet gotten around to watching the series, in the aptly named episode ‘The Train Job’, Mal (played by Nathan Fillion) and co. attempt to cancel a deal to deliver a stolen package, after the contents cause a moral dilemma. The crime lord who offered the job dispatches a gang in response, who unsuccessfully try to take the cargo by force from the fleeing crew. The video shows the ‘negotiation’ that takes place as Mal attempts to reach an amicable resolution to the hostilities.

There are three people involved in this negotiation: Mal, the first (unfortunate) gang member, and the second gang member. Whilst Mal does not exactly spend long at the negotiation table, he does exhibit a few qualities of a good negotiator. Firstly, he has alternatives: simply leave, as was the plan from the beginning before the second alternative arrived (returning the up-front payment). There is a certain level of patience, what having just being attacked by those he’s trying to negotiate with. Mal also knew when to sensibly back out of negotiations upon recognising the poor negotiation skills of the first thug: impatience, stubbornness, being unaware of the value of each offer and unaware of his own and Mal’s alternatives. We know emotional thinking impairs discrimination, so perhaps the first gang member allowed feeling of anger to affect his negotiation ability.

By comparison, the second gang member, despite being admittedly under the influence of social consensus after noting the general disproval from an audience at refusing the offer (Goldstein et al., 2008), and being likely to settle for less whilst having negative emotions (Lerner et al., 2004) is a better negotiator. He is aware of his options (do or die) and also the value of each offer (his life = valuable to him, not to Mal; returning the money = valuable to Mal). There may also be recognition of the Zero Sum Fallacy, in that he is unlikely to be affected financially by returning money to the leader, and that he also wishes to live: everybody wins.

This example provides a good introduction to basic principles in negotiation, most prominently knowing your alternatives, and those of the other party. Whilst we may not likely to employ the tactics used in this clip, we can learn something from the space-cowboys, as they do pose a solid lesson the importance of knowing other peoples interests.

Stuart Miller


Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., 7 Griskevicus, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

Lerner, J. S., Small, D. A., & Loewenstein, G. (2004). Heart strings and purse strings: Carryover effects of emotions on economic decisions. Psychological Science, 15(5), 3337-341.

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