To Make Decisions With a Partner, Counterintuitive Study Says: Back Down

Sometimes, letting your partner win is key to getting what you want. 


Some decisions can be hard to make, but they’re even harder when you have to deal with another person’s feelings — and annoying insistence that they really don’t care where you go for dinner (because they clearly do). The next time this happens, allow the results of a new paper published in Consumer Psychology to guide you. There’s a way to get what you want — or pretty close to it — but it comes at a cost.

Confronted with small decisions, like what movie to watch or what kind of restaurant to go to for dinner, Hristina Nikolova, Ph.D., a Boston College professor of marketing, provides evidence that it’s actually best to back down when faced with a pushy partner. Conversely, if you have a very docile partner, it’s best to take the reins. This, she admits, feels very counterintuitive, but ultimately, each person ends up getting something close to what they want at the end of the day.

“Consumers’ preferences are more similar to those of other consumers than they recognize,” she tells Inverse. “That’s why if you let your partner drive the decision, the chosen option will very likely satisfy your personal preferences as well.”

When making low-risk decisions, like which restaurant to go to, altruistic people benefit from backing down if their partner is pushy. 


The idea that our opinions aren’t as unique as they seem feels hard to swallow, but Nikolova and her team found that, at least when it comes to restaurants, Saturday Night Live skits, and late ‘90s/early ‘00s music videos, the evidence backed up her hypothesis.

The team ran two experiments on undergrads who had filled out surveys intended to determine whether they were pushy or “selfish” about their preferences or altruistic. In the first experiment, 151 of those undergrads indicated their preferences for seven Saturday Night Live skits by ranking them one through seven. Then, they were paired up at random, and told to pick one video to watch.

Nikolova noticed that, when two pushy partners or two non-pushy partners (“homogenous dyads”), the teams ended up watching skits that were low on both of their lists. The only pairs that didn’t end up watching mediocre Saturday Night Live skits were the altruistic partners paired with pushy people (heterogenous dyads). In an additional experiment, they also found that this effect held when the partners had to pick a local restaurant to go to as well.

This suggested that partners who behave differently make better decisions together, and a follow-up experiment revealed why.

The seven SNL skits that partners had to choose from. 

Journal of Consumer Psychology 

This time, 308 undergrads ranked late ‘90s and early ‘00s music videos, and the team recorded the interactions between the random pairs. Those videos showed why the homogenous dyads ended up unhappy: They negotiated more, which “ultimately pushes partners further down their preference lists to an option that is less preferred by both parties,” according to the team.

Pairs of pushy people, they noticed, worked against their own self-interests when they negotiated. In order to defend their own turf, “they trade rejected offers” until they both settled on a mediocre music video. Two altruistic people, meanwhile, continuously conceded offers until they ended up deciding on one they were equally lukewarm about about.

But in heterogeneous pairs, the end result of the decision-making processes turned out to be a video that was higher on both parties’ preference lists.

"That’s why if you let your partner drive the decision, the chosen option will very likely satisfy your personal preferences as well.”

Nikolova cautions that these effects may not hold up when we have to make more weighty decisions. Deciding where to go for dinner is low risk, and usually people’s top preferences are somewhat close, so conceding early can help ensure a more preferable outcome. But deciding whether or not to buy a home, which is a decidedly more serious choice, could push people to express their opinions differently and use different tactics.

“Consumers may express stronger opinions or be even more hesitant to express an opinion to maintain the social equilibrium,” she says. “Therefore, we could see both different outcomes and different decision tactics used by the different types of dyads in highly involved and risky decision contexts.”

But for everyday decisions, her work points to the power of knowing your partner. If you partner is pushy, Nikolova adds that there’s no shame in backing down. But if your partner is altruistic, it’s best to take the reins and just pick a place, since you probably won’t be inconveniencing them too much.

If you pick wisely, everyone can end up happy.

We examine how the interplay of two partners’ interpersonal orientations (selfish vs. altruistic) in a decision‐making dyad impacts the extent to which the joint decision matches each partners’ individual a priori preferences. Two experiments, in which we manipulate and measure interpersonal orientations, as well as examine real consumption decisions, demonstrate the benefit of mismatching interpersonal orientations (selfish‐altruistic) in dyadic decisions. Specifically, altruistic and selfish consumers reach joint decisions that better reflect their individual preferences when working with a partner who has the opposite interpersonal orientation (heterogeneous dyad) versus a matching one (homogeneous dyad). Initial evidence suggests that this effect occurs because homogeneous dyads are more prone to engage in negotiation (communication that involves departure from one’s initial position to a mutually serving position) than heterogeneous dyads. This leads homogeneous dyads to focus more on equally preferred options than on their own most preferred options, which pushes them further down both partners’ preferences lists. This research contributes to the literature on joint decision making and has important implications for consumer well‐being.
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