Negotiation Research: The Number of Issues Is Crucial

2022-01-27 How many issues should be discussed in a negotiation so that both parties reach the best possible solution? In his new publication, Dr. Marco Warsitzka (Institute of Psychology) recommends limiting oneself to a moderate number of issues.

Marco Warsitzka ©Leuphana/Marie Meyer
"We conclude that, especially in more complex negotiations, the focus should be on about three to four core issues to get the best possible solution for all parties," says Marco Warsitzka from the Institute of Psychology.

"We look at negotiations with win-win potential, i.e. negotiations in which solutions can be found that are in the interest of both parties," Warsitzka explains the starting point of his new publication in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. An example of this would be a classic negotiation at the workplace: "Both employer and employee have issues that are important to them in different ways - be it weekly working hours or the opportunity to work from one' s home." This different weighting of issues is key to win-win solutions. What is important to the employer (employees should be available 40 hours a week) and what is important to the employee (to work from home) complement each other to create a win-win solution. Prerequisite for this is that the negotiation deals with at least two issues (if employee and employer were to negotiate only about working time in the example, no win-win solution would be possible). Does this effect increase when more than two issues are discussed in a negotiation?

"We compared negotiation situations with a moderate number of issues and negotiations involving many issues," Warsitzka explains his approach to the study, "looking at how the cognitive processing of few versus many issues influences the finding of win-win solutions." His conclusion: less is more. "We conclude that, especially in more complex negotiations, the focus should be on about three to four core issues to get the best possible solution for all parties." This is because of the way human cognition deals with such situations. Warsitzka was able to show empirically that negotiators consistently pick out only a subset of the total negotiation issues and focus on these first. Once these issues have been settled, the next “issue package” is discussed. The brain processes neither each issue individually nor all at the same time: instead, the set of issues is managed and cognitively processed by working through the issues one after the other in a bundle. This process is called cognitive issue bracketing.

For the total number of negotiation issues, this thought process means that with fewer core issues, the parties are more likely to manage to discuss two issues in parallel that have win-win potential - i.e. are well compatible with each other so that both parties have an advantage (for example, working hours and working from home). "The greater the total number of issues, the more likely it is that issues that are all very important to one party and rather unimportant to the other party are discussed simultaneously. That makes it difficult to achieve win-win solutions." For example, a win-win situation would be more difficult to achieve if, out of a larger pool of issues, it is precisely the issues of working from home and childcare that coincide, both of which may be very important to the employee and both of which are unimportant to the employer.

With reference to everyday practice Warsitzka recommends that "{i}n negotiations, where there are numerous issues on the table, one should try to negotiate as many issues as possible simultaneously - as long as it is feasible to keep an overview of them."

The empirical research article "How cognitive issue bracketing affects interdependent decision-making in negotiations" by Marco Warsitzka in collaboration with Hong Zhang, David D. Loschelder, Johann M. Majer and Roman Trötschel will be published in the "Journal of Experimental Social Psychology" (volume 99) in March 2022. The bimonthly journal is published by Elsevier on behalf of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SESP). With an impact factor of 3.603, it is an internationally renowned journal in the field of social psychology.

Warsitzka, a business and social psychologist, completed his dissertation summa cum laude at Leuphana University in 2020. He is currently a PostDoc at the Chair of Social and Political Psychology and a member of the 'Negotiation Research Group' at the Institute of Psychology in a project funded by the Hans Böckler Foundation.


  • Dr. Marco Warsitzka