Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

If better health isn’t enough incentive to take a brisk walk, perhaps there is another one: It may get you a better deal.

New research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a twist on the adage “never let them see you sweat,” says Jared Curhan, associate professor of organization studies at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and one of the study’s co-authors. “If you’re sweating, and your heart rate is up, it’s seen as a sign something is going wrong, that you’re too nervous, off-balance, flustered,” he said. “Whereas we’re showing that something could be very right.”

Curhan and his colleagues found that a person who negotiates while moving — say, pacing while bargaining over job terms on the cellphone — can see improved results. But there is, of course, a rub. The better outcomes seen with exertion tend to come only to people who are confident heading into the negotiation in the first place. If, instead, they are nervous, walking may actually hamper performance.

The study, published recently in the journal Psychological Science, involved two experiments. One compared the experience of subjects who negotiated to buy a car on a cellphone while walking briskly on a treadmill (their heart rates averaged 117 beats a minute) against the experience of others who walked at a more modest pace (88 beats a minute). A second experiment compared the experiences of subjects negotiating for job terms on a cellphone; some subjects took a casual walk, while others sat in a chair.

As conventional wisdom would suggest, those who dreaded negotiation performed even worse when they exerted themselves. What was more surprising was that those who looked forward to negotiation displayed the opposite results: In the job-negotiation experiment, they performed better and felt better about their performances when they were walking. And in the treadmill experiment, the confident negotiators felt that they performed better when their heart rates were elevated — more so than equally confident people who walked at a modest pace.

The results provide a real-world application to a decades-old body of science about the relationship between physical and mental states. It turns out that it’s very easy to confuse the two. That is because, broadly speaking, emotions consist of two factors: a physiological response and how a person experiences and labels it.

In other words, one person might call a racing heart and sweaty palms anxiety, and another might call it excitement. Recent research from Alison Wood Brooks, a scholar now at the Harvard Business School, shows that people perform better in a range of pursuits — singing, public speaking, math — if they can take note of the physiological responses and re-label their feelings as excitement as opposed to anxiety.

Brooks said the research would apply to negotiation. Her advice is for people to reappraise anxiety as excitement. This can be accomplished, she said, even by simply saying “I’m excited.” Earlier research shows that anxiety can be so debilitating that it causes people to “make low first offers, exit early and earn less profit.”

Brooks said the new MIT research showed a way to counter these forces.

“Get on the treadmill, get your heart racing and once it’s racing, appraise the feeling as excitement — tell yourself ‘I am excited, not anxious,’” she said. “And then go forth and prosper.”

One thing that is not clear from the MIT study is just how much physical exertion makes sense in negotiation. For now, said Ashley Brown, the lead author of the study who is now a psychology researcher at Stanford, “I wouldn’t suggest doing a marathon.”