Women: Want a Raise? Think Scary Thoughts

What if you could trick yourself into becoming a better negotiator by summoning a particular emotion? A new study suggests that women who use fear to self-motivate may boost their earning power. The opposite effect was observed in frightened men -- they negotiated marginally lower payments in the experiment, which is part of ongoing research by UCLA Anderson professors Heajung Jung and Maia Young, and University of Washington professor Christopher Bauman.

The professors wanted to explore whether study subjects' emotional responses could alleviate the documented "women don't ask" phenomenon, which is partly responsible for the persistent wage gap between women and men, and holds that women are significantly less likely to initiate negotiations. Young (pictured) expected to find that anger, not fear, would help women to ask for more as this would be consistent with previous, related research. "The results were a complete surprise," she says. In the study, subjects played the word game Boggle and were told that, depending on their individual performance, they would be paid between $4 and $12, and that the amount was negotiable. As their performances were scored, the participants watched video clips intended to induce one of three emotions. Anger was elicited by a clip from the movie My Bodyguard, which showed a person being bullied. Subjects were made fearful by viewing a scary scene from The Shining. The third group remained emotionally neutral after viewing a nature video. Both men and women self-reported feeling the emotions the clips were intended provoke.

The experiment revealed that the fearful men were less likely to initiate negotiations. As a result, they took home smaller payments than the men exposed to the neutral video. In contrast, the frightened women were more likely to instigate negotiations and collected more money than the women who watched the neutral clip. No gender differences were observed between the angry and neutral subjects.

The professors are conducting follow-up studies to help them better interpret and expand on their findings. For now, they have theories as to what might be responsible for the disparate reactions sparked by fear. They say fear is characterized by a "flight or fight" pattern in men, and a "tend or befriend" tendency in women. It could be that, consistent with the flight response, the fearful men avoided engaging and took what they were initially offered. It's unclear what prevented them from fighting instead. The professors suspect that the fearful women sought out opportunities to "tend and befriend" by affiliating with the experimenter instead of facing their stress alone.

"We hesitate to advocate scaring women ... to boost their negotiation outcomes," write the professors. Instead, they say their findings are good news for women who may feel doomed to underperform in negotiations. Young notes that women and men can self-motivate by reflecting on emotional experiences. "We can prime ourselves in different ways," she says.