The academic who thinks businessmen could learn a thing or two from this Disney princess film

Harriet Green
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You probably haven’t seen Disney’s 2013 film Frozen, the story of a princess who makes an incredible journey, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

Its award-winning song "Let It Go" is an anthem for releasing and displaying emotion. But according to Peter Carnevale, a professor of management and organisation at USC’s Marshall School of Business, anybody in a position of negotiation needs to be careful about managing their emotions “because the person across the table is making inferences based on facial expressions”.

Speaking to Medical Xpress, he explains that facial expressions can directly impact cooperation. That means, as the research service points out, that Let It Go's message of getting it all out might not always be the best one. And in fact, the mindset it tries to dash - "Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know…" - may well be a more effective route to success.

In his paper "Reading People's Minds from Emotion Expressions in Interdependent Decision Making", co-authored with Celso M de Melo and others, Carnevale looks at the detailed role displays of emotion play in boardroom situations. He says:

…The ability to achieve cooperation is especially challenging in today's multifaceted workplace. Facial expressions that emphasise different kinds of emotions give meaning to normal conversation. Good negotiators are adept at making offers and talking in negotiation, but also at managing their facial expressions.

To look at the extent to which emotional expression can impact negotiations, volunteers were paired with computer-generated images of an opposing negotiator.

Each experiment - there were five - saw a two-person task bring payoffs, depending on the simultaneous choices made by both players. Mirroring the prisoner’s dilemma game, cooperation on both sides meant a reward (money). Investment from neither meant nothing, and cooperation from one side and not the other meant the cooperator lost out.

The unique thing about these experiments were the pre-determined facial expressions of the computer-generated player. In some cases, it expressed happiness after cooperation, in others, after exploitation. The same with frowning: sometimes it did so after being exploited, sometimes after co-operating.

Carnevale found that computer counterparts that smiled following cooperation, and frowned after defection, led to significantly more cooperation on the part of the human volunteer. This supports something called appraisal theory, which states that emotions are extracted from out evaluations of events which prompt a particular reaction in others.

Carnevale says the theory can be used as a “concrete mathematical framework” for translating the beliefs, desires and intentions of machines into “intuitive human-readable signals”.

He recommends that it might not always be beneficial to show how happy you are after an agreement, “because it might lead to the other person to think that you did better than they did”. But, on the other hand, it might be “the ticket to success”.

Going back to Frozen, Carnevale, comparing it to Snow White, which was made almost 80 years ago, pointed out that it’s a great example of individuals - in this case, Disney animators - knowing just how important emotions are.