One Way to Win at Negotiations: Crack a Dumb Joke

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Photo: FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Here’s a move that pulls double duty: Next time you’re seated across from a potential new employer to hammer out salary details, try kicking things off with a silly wisecrack. One, it’ll break the ice; and two, it might just help you leave with a better offer. As the Association for Psychological Science explained in a recent blog post, past research has shown that opening with a joke about your desired salary can be a better strategy than playing it straight.

There’s a name for the conventional wisdom about starting with a high number: It’s called anchoring. As in, the first number that gets tossed out is the one that anchors the discussion, the number with the most influence over how things eventually play out. And according to the study that the APS highlights, published in 2011 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, that holds even when the first number is something clearly ridiculous, like saying you want a million dollars for a job that obviously won’t pay anything in that ballpark.

The study authors asked volunteers to imagine they were in the last stages of interviewing someone to join their company — the only thing left to do was talk salary, and then write down how much they planned to offer. Participants in the control group were told the candidate’s salary from their past job ($29,000), while the rest of the volunteers asked their hypothetical interviewee what kind of money they were looking for. In those cases, the APS explained:

Half of the time the job candidate jokingly responded with an implausibly high anchor (“I would like $100,000, but really I am just looking for something that is fair”) or a ridiculously low anchor (“I would work for $1, but really I am just looking for something that is fair”) …

As expected, participants did anchor on the first number presented during the salary negotiation — even when that number was intended as a joke. When the bidding started off with the mention of $100,000 the average offer was $35,385 compared to an offer of $32,463 for the control group. That is, the high salary joke actually paid off with an extra $3,000 a year.

The tactic also makes it harder for prospective employers to infer from your answer what you were making previously, which works in your favor: “Knowledge of the candidate’s salary history gives the employer information about what the candidate is likely to expect, which may be at the lower end of what the employer is willing to offer,” said study author Todd J. Thorsteinson, a psychologist at the University of Idaho. (As the APS noted, Massachusetts recently become the first state to pass a law forbidding employers from asking about salary history, a big step in combating the gender wage gap.) And in the hierarchy of things to like about a job, earning what you’re worth is even better than compliments and pizza.