Basing his study on ‘anchoring’ (the human tendency to rely heavily on one piece of information when making decisions), psychological scientist Todd J. Thorsteinson from the University of Idaho sought answers on how influential a starting salary is on negotiations.
He found that when negotiations started off with a ridiculously high number, it still influenced how much job candidates were offered.
“Incorporating a joking comment about implausible salary expectations may be a relatively easy way for job candidates to establish a high anchor and minimise negative reactions from employers,” he wrote in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
For his study, Initiating Salary Discussions with an Extreme Request: Anchoring Effects on Initial Salary Offers, he solicited the participation of more than 200 college students and asked them to pretend to be hiring managers about to offer an administrative assistant position to a qualified candidate.
One group of participants were told that her past salary was US$29,000 before asking for her desired salary while another group were told to ask the applicant what salary she wanted off the bat.
The candidate would then respond in two ways, one with an implausibly high anchor (“I would like US$100,000, but really I am just looking for something fair) or a ridiculously low one, like US$1.
When the participants were asked to type in a salary offer, Thorsteinson keyed in on the first number they were presented with, even if it was made in jest.
“When the bidding started off with the mention of US$100,000 the average offer was US$35,385 compared to an offer of US$32,463 for the control group (the ones who knew her past salary). That is, the high salary joke actually paid off with an extra US$3,000 a year,” reported the Association for Psychological Sciences (APS).
Thorsteinson added that this information could potentially reduce some of the pay gap between genders – if women use it to their advantage.
“If there is a sex difference in prior salaries with men having higher salaries than women, then eliminating this information could help level the playing field,” he said.
“However, this may not eliminate the pay gap, as there may be sex differences in propensity to negotiate or backlash against women for negotiating.”
Salary negotiations are stressful times for both the employee and the boss, but one psychological scientist says diffusing the situation with a joke is beneficial to both.