The Other Face of a Poker Face

The Other Face of a Poker Face


Looking indifferent during a negotiation does not pay off, since indifference is likely to be construed as lack of emotional involvement. A paper by Garrett L. Brady of Bocconi’s Department of Management and Technology, together with Smadar Cohen-Chen of the University of Sussex, Sebastiano Massaro of Warwick University and the University of Surrey, and Gerben van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam, titled “Meh, Whatever: The Effects of Indifference Expressions on Cooperation in Social Conflict,” is a pioneering study on this peculiar communication tactic.
Negotiations are fairly complex interactions, and have been studied for a very long time in management literature. Even so, they are often considered to be on the whole as zero-sum games, so that the attention is commonly focused on signals of power (or lack thereof) that can shift the outcome either way. Any display of emotions has also generally been seen through the lens of power, as a sign of irrationality and therefore a weakening factor in a negotiation.
Infographics by Weiwei Chen

Within this theoretical mindset, it may be inferred that the best option would be to display indifference, meaning (broadly speaking) as little emotional interaction as possible, keeping what is sometimes called a “poker face”. As the effects of indifference on observers have never been investigated as such, the authors set out to bridge this gap. They devised six different but related studies during which a total of more than 2,400 participants were involved in various situations where their counterparts did or did not display indifference.

The experiments showed that indifference is not neutral at all. Recorded reactions make it clear that indifference is routinely interpreted as lack of engagement. Perceived low emotional investment, that is, leads to a corresponding reduction in the quality of interaction. In one of the experiments, individuals facing indifference were three times more likely to walk away from the discussion compared with those in a control group.
“People are expected to feel something. Even anger is to some extent better than indifference, because at least you show you care,” says Garrett Brady. “The message that you are irrelevant and not consequential enough to elicit an emotional reaction may well be interpreted, and experienced, negatively. Our research shows that although expressing indifference may be perceived as conveying a neutral message in conflict, indifference expressions can harm conflict resolution by fueling inferences in observers that the expresser is unlikely to collaborate, which in turn reduces their own cooperative intentions and behaviors.”
Cohen-Chen, S., Brady, G. L., Massaro, S., & van Kleef, G. A.Meh, Whatever: The Effects of Indifference Expressions on Cooperation in Social ConflictJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 123(6), 1336–1361. DOI:

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by Andrea Costa
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