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Negotiation, Communication and I.Q.

(image: Kpelle woman harvesting rice links to article on Liberian-Americans)

I was just talking about class and privilege over at the Professional Women’s Network Blog the other day. Then, since ideas seems to come in pairs, our favorite social science writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote about culture and IQ in the New Yorkers — a topic that’s blown the top off  more than a few academic institutions in its time (see None of the Above:  What IQ Doesn’t Tell You About Race).

You Say Potato, I Say Paring Knife

Before getting to the negotiation point, here’s the meat of the Gladwell article.  In explaining why IQ scores predictably creep up every generation, Gladwell discusses the category of questions that show the biggest gains — similarities.

The big gains on the [IQ test] are largely in the category known as “similarities,” where you get questions such as “In what way are ‘dogs’ and ‘rabbits’ alike?” Today, we tend to give what, for the purposes of I.Q. tests, is the right answer: dogs and rabbits are both mammals. A nineteenth-century American would have said that “you use dogs to hunt rabbits.”

“If the everyday world is your cognitive home, it is not natural to detach abstractions and logic and the hypothetical from their concrete referents,” Flynn writes. Our great-grandparents may have been perfectly intelligent. But they would have done poorly on I.Q. tests because they did not participate in the twentieth century’s great cognitive revolution, in which we learned to sort experience according to a new set of abstract categories.

In Flynn’s phrase, we have now had to put on “scientific spectacles,” which enable us to make sense of the WISC questions about similarities. To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.

Cross-Culutral Pairings

How modern indeed!  Take a look at what happens when the IQ mavens go to “primitive” societies with a “similarity” test.

[When researchers gave] members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia [the IQ] similarities test, they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories.

To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained.

Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way.

But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits.

So, how does this help us negotiate?

First of all, the research Gladwell cites powerfully reminds us that everyone does not think in the same way we do.  The assumption that they do is likely responsible for our failure to ask diagnostic questions when to do so would dramatically improve our negotiation position (see Negotiating Past Impasse, noting that “only seven percent of negotiators seek information that would reveal the other parties’ true goals and aspirations when it would be dramatically helpful to do so.”)

Second, and more importantly, it reminds us that we don’t really have any idea what our negotiation partner is thinking; what he’s after; and, how we might satisfy one another’s true needs and desires.

So here’s our negotiation tip of the week

Act like every one of your bargaining partners is a member of the Kpelle tribe, sorting the subject matter of the negotiation according to functionality instead of abstract categories.  Remind yourself that just as you’re rating your opponent’s intelligence as sub-par, he’s already decided that only a fool would be categorizing the facts in the way you are.

With those stark differences in mind, what’s a negotiator to do?

Ask questions.

“What are your goals?  Why do think I’d be willing to enter into an agreement that appears to be so foolish to me?  What metric are you measuring your benefit by?  What metric do you imagine I’m applying to mine?”

These are the type of questions that take the struggle out of the negotiation — that relieve you of the chore of overpowering your negotiating partner into accepting the “wisdom” of your offer.

Don’t miss the opportunity to ask that crazy Kpelle why he paired a potato with a knife and jump at the chance to explain why you set it down next to the yam.


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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