Why You Shouldn’t Issue Ultimatums

They’re nothing more than emotional threats


Ultimatums are always emotional warfare.

They’re the last-ditch effort of someone who’s at the end of their rope, in terms of true negotiation power, and grasping at straws for impact. They’re cheap plays, meant to threaten and make the other person feel powerless. But they’re always indicative of insecurities, and they’re almost always fake.

Penelope Trunk wrote, regarding ways to have a good marriage, to never use ultimatums:

“We often use them like an escape route from negotiating. But in fact, in all cases — marriage, salary, and everything in between — the person who gives the ultimatum is the one most likely to lose.”

The Harvard Business Review explains wrote an article on decisions and desire which cited a study done on ultimatums and how they always activate the animal instinct part of the brain — and negotiating in that mental state is nearly impossible.

They discuss “the ultimate game,” an experiment in which two participants are asked to negotiate $10, but with one stipulation: one player decides how they’ll split it, and the other player can either accept or reject. If they reject the offer, both players get nothing.

According to game theory (and rationale), the second player should always accept whatever was offered, however low, because getting any amount of money is better than getting none. (And, knowing this, the player making the offer would always offer the lowest amount possible.)

But of course that’s not what happens.

“In these experiments, when the offer dwindles to a few dollars, people on the receiving end consistently turn it down, forfeiting a free couple of bucks for — well, for what, exactly? Ask these participants and they’ll tell you, in so many words, that they rejected the lowball offer because they were ticked off at the stingy partner (who, remember, loses her share, too). Not exactly a triumph of reason.”

But fairness is often more important to us than reason, and it doesn’t just kick in when we play with petty cash — it also kicks in when people offer any kind of ultimatum. When someone pits something they’re demanding against something we care about (or wish to avoid), it immediately triggers us to fold.

And the end point here is:

If you truly want to keep playing, you have to do so in a way that’s equitable for both players, given what they want. If you want to keep them in the game, respect them enough to honor the fact that they still have enough of their own chips to play.

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