&Quot;He Says No, But Does He Really Mean It?&Quot;: Bargaining Behavior, Cue Consistency, and Attribution

Randall L. Rose, University of South Carolina
Peter R. Dickson, The Ohio State University
ABSTRACT - A number of authors have recommended that attribution theory be applied to studying bargaining. One promising avenue is to study the nature and amount of information that is extracted from observing the opponent's emerging patterns of behavior across time and perceptual modalities. In this paper the effects of these cue patterns on impression formation, attribution, and bargaining behavior are explored. The concept of cue consistency is introduced and applied to the reconciliation of reciprocity and aspiration-level perspectives on bargaining behavior.
[ to cite ]:
Randall L. Rose and Peter R. Dickson (1987) ,"&Quot;He Says No, But Does He Really Mean It?&Quot;: Bargaining Behavior, Cue Consistency, and Attribution", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 382-386.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 382-386


Randall L. Rose, University of South Carolina

Peter R. Dickson, The Ohio State University


A number of authors have recommended that attribution theory be applied to studying bargaining. One promising avenue is to study the nature and amount of information that is extracted from observing the opponent's emerging patterns of behavior across time and perceptual modalities. In this paper the effects of these cue patterns on impression formation, attribution, and bargaining behavior are explored. The concept of cue consistency is introduced and applied to the reconciliation of reciprocity and aspiration-level perspectives on bargaining behavior.


Attribution theories have frequently been proposed as a rich conceptual framework which could be fruitfully applied to bargaining research (e.g., Chertkoff and Esser 1976; Schurr and Ozanne 1985). Despite the relevance of attributional processes to an understanding of bargaining behavior, scholars have not followed up this speculation with the rigorous program of research that is clearly merited. The purposes of this paper are: (1) to describean attributional framework useful for guiding future research into attributional processes in bargaining, (2) to demonstrate the power and relevance of attribution theory in bargaining research by proposing an attributional explanation for some fundamental, unresolved bargaining issues, and, (3) to emphasize the signalling power of cue consistency across time and modality in bargaining.


Since some scholars (e.g., Manis 1977) have questioned the prevalence and importance of attributional processing in human behavior in general, it seems necessary to examine the conditions under which attributions are likely to be made in bargaining. Four factors have been shown to be potential instigators of attributional processing: (1) explicit causal questions, (2) outcome dependency, (3) task failure, and (4) unexpected events (Hastie 1984). While demonstrations of the potency of these factors to stimulate inference-making have been made in contexts other than bargaining, the extrapolation of these findings to bargaining behavior seems straightforward.

The achievement literature (e.g., Diener and Dweck 1978; Wong and Weiner 1981) provides substantial evidence that task failure can stimulate causal reasoning. In a bargaining context, perceptions of failure in previous negotiations and the failure of the other party to accept the latest offer in the current negotiation may lead a bargainer to seek explanations for that lack of success and result in more frequent or more thorough inferential processes during subsequent negotiations. Explicit causal questions also stimulate inference-making (Enzle and Schopflocher 1978). It is likely that direct attributional questions asked of subjects before or after bargaining experiments may lead bargainers to make attributions which might not otherwise have been made spontaneously. This phenomenon makes it difficult to measure attributions independent of the research context.

Several experiments (e.g., Eagly et al. 1978; Pyszczynski and Greenberg 1981; Wong and Weiner 1981) in the attribution literature support the prediction that unexpected events promote attributional processing, particularly when the disconfirmed expectancy has negative consequences for the perceiver. In a negotiation, inference-making may be stimulated by bargaining behavior that deviates markedly from the perceiver's experience, that seems contrary to the actor's interests, that is inconsistent with the actor's prior behavior, or that violates norms of acceptable bargaining behavior. For example, consider a situation where a bargainer has been consistently soft or cooperative in his or her bargaining stance but suddenly deviates from this pattern by ceasing to make concessions and by expressing an inability to make further concessions. Faced with such a dramatic shift in behavior, the perceiver is motivated to begin an attributional search for a plausible cause. Another case of disconfirmed expectancy occurs when a cooperatively oriented bargainer makes a meaningful concession, fully expecting a concession in return, but is rebuffed and is left to wonder why the reciprocity norm was violated. Should the unexpected failure to cooperate be attributed to external situational constraints such as a lack of authority to make further concessions or to internal, dispositional factors such as greed? The perceiver's response may depend strongly on the type of attribution made to account for such distinctive behavior.

Heider (1958) proposed that people are motivated to conduct causal analysis because of a drive to establish cognitive mastery over their environment. Similarly, the attribution stimulating properties of outcome dependency may be derived from a drive for control. In order to gain some degree of perceived control or mastery over the distribution of rewards in the negotiation, bargainers are motivated to seek as much information as possible about environmental factors likely to influence bargaining outcomes. Thus, mutual dependency should be a powerful attribution triggering factor in a bargaining context. Berschied et al. (1976) demonstrated in a non-bargaining context that the degree of motivation to perform causal analysis of an actor's behavior varied directly with the actor's ability to control the rewards and punishments available to the perceiver.

All four attribution stimulating factors described above seem likely to operate in a bargaining context. However, little research has examined the relative importance of these factors and other triggers. It is important to understand the conditions under which attributions are likely to be made in bargaining for two reasons. First, this knowledge would contribute directly to our understanding of bargaining behavior and would allow a judgment to mate as to the relative importance of attributions as determinants of bargaining behavior. Obviously, if attributional processing does not occur spontaneously in bargaining, then the attribution-behavior link can not be a strong one. Second, an understanding of the factors capable of stimulating inference-making in bargaining might improve bargaining skills by suggesting tactics that would tend to elicit certain types of attributions and impressions favorable to the tactician.


Once the bargainer recognizes an attributional problem, the process of deriving a plausible explanation for the observed behavior is set into motion. The first step in this process is a search for attributionally relevant information. This information might be internal (i.e., in memory) or external to the inference maker. However, due to the strategic nature of bargaining, information obtained through explicit communication with the other party may not be accurate. Bargainers not only manage their explicit communications, but they frequently attempt to control the impression derived from implicit cues such as the pattern of concessions as well (Brucks and Schurr 1984). Thus, bargaining communications serve a dual purpose: one informational, the other manipulative.

Much of the mainstream attribution research (e.g., McArthur 1972) has focused on the extent to which people acquire and utilize distinctiveness, consistency, and consensus information (Kelley 1967) as part of the process of making attributions. Clearly, one or more of these types of information are usually unavailable in a negotiation, particularly when bargainers are interacting for the first time. Yet even in circumstances of incomplete information, attributions may be quickly and confidently made. Kelley (1967) recognized this problem of incomplete information and suggested that some types of information relevant to causal analysis may be inferred. For example, it may not be necessary for an attributor to seek the consensus of others about the cause of an observed behavior. Rather, the attributor may be able to tap a wealth of consensus information based on experience or social norms which is held in memory.

Kelley's causal schemata were proposed, in part, as another solution to this problem of one-time interactions and limited information (Kelley 1972). One which might be applied in a bargaining setting is the multiple sufficient cause schema (MSC). When a bargainer is confronted by tough behavior from the other party, sufficient causes for that behavior might include greed, aggressiveness, constituent pressure, economic restrictions, use of a negotiating ploy, etc. Kelley's discounting principle suggests that under such circumstances the role of any one these factors as a potential cause of the observed behavior is discounted due to the presence of other plausible causes. The attributor then becomes mired in a problem of trying to assess the plausibility of various competing explanations. It is exactly this sticky problem which must be solved if an attribution theory is to prove useful as a predictor of bargaining behavior. A potential solution to this problem of relative plausibility appears to have been overlooked in earlier theoretical work, even though the raw material for the solution may be found in Kelley's early attribution work (Kelley 1967). While distinctiveness and consensus information may often be absent in a bargaining context, several different types of consistency information are available in the form of the pattern of stimulus cues provided to one party by the behavior of the other


Kelley's attribution model recognizes consistency in behavior over time and across modalities. Kelley has described the latter form of consistency as referring to different perceptual modes or sensory modalities of interaction with the actor (Kelley 1973). We believe that the concept of consistency over perceptual modality is very important in bargaining. Cue inconsistencies across time or modality undermine a bargaining position; hence, highly consistent cues in bargaining may be interpreted as much more credible information. Many different types of cues are typically available in a negotiation: facial expressions, body language, explicit written and verbal communications, the size and frequency of concessions, the deliberation time between bids, etc. Perhaps the most important type of implicit information available in a negotiation is provided by cue patterns rather than the individual cues. When multiple cues are present in an interaction (and it is hard to imagine a setting in which more than one cue would not be available in a bargaining context), several types of information are extractable from the pattern of their inter-relationships or correspondence with one another.

One important aspect of consistency in bargaining is the extent to which a cue is consistent over time. In other words, is there a discernable pattern to the behavior across bids in the negotiation? This type of consistency could be called "temporal consistency" (Kelley 1967). A cue, such as a pattern of concessions may be directional or non-directional, and still be temporally consistent. For example, a negatively accelerated (i.e., large to small) pattern of concessions is directional and temporally consistent in that the soft-to-tough direction is consistently signalled over time. On the other hand, a bargainer who concedes the same amount on each bid is also exhibiting behavior which is temporally consistent; however, the pattern is non-directional.

Directionality can be thought of as increasing the information value of a cue. Conceding a constant amount may lead a bargainer's partner to be quite confident about the size of her/his next concession, but such a pattern provides little information about the bargainer's motives, intentions, or the likelihood that another concession will be made on the next bid. Non-linear, negatively accelerating concession patterns clearly signal a point beyond which the bargainer is unable or unwilling to concede. Positively accelerated concession patterns signal an increasing willingness to cooperate. In all of the cases it is up to the observer to make an attribution about the reasons for the bargainer's concession-making behavior.

The nature of that attribution and the confidence with which it is made depends in part on the information value of each cue and the nature of the relationship between the concession cue and other cues available in the interaction. Thus, the second aspect of consistency concerns the relationships among the behavioral cues. Two types of inter-cue consistency are identifiable: (1) the consistency between cues during any one point in time (i.e., during any bid) which we will call "point consistency" and (2) the consistency between the patterns formed by the cues which we will call "directional consistency".

Understanding the information value and the degree of consistency among behavior patterns likely to be available in a typical negotiation is a very difficult and complex task. Even simplified two-cue settings prove to be much more complex than one might imagine at first glance. However, by classifying a bargainer's behavior as either high or low in terms of consistency and either high, moderate, or low in terms of information value, it is possible to identify six (2x3) different types of relationships between two bargaining cues. Figure 1 shows the six different ways in which two bargaining cues may be classified along the information value and consistency dimensions. Cell 1 contains cues which are highly consistent with each other and which provide maximal information about the actor. The cues are highly consistent because each cue moves from soft to tough from one bid to the next and the direction of change is the same through-out the negotiation. The information value is high because both cues are patterned, signalling a consistent soft-to-tough direction over time. In Cell 2 the cue patterns are inconsistent or conflicting in that one cue moves from soft-to-tough while the other changes from tough-to-soft across bids. However, the information value is still high because both cues are patterned and directional. It is only the nature of the information conveyed by each cue that is inconsistent.

In Cell 3, cross-cue consistency is high because the toughness of the concessions and messages moves together from one bid to the next (i.e., the toughness of the concession cue and toughness of the message cue are highly correlated). The information value of the cues is only moderate, however. Even though a soft-to-tough trend or direction is observable over time for each cue, the temporal consistency of the bargainer's behavior is lover than in Cell 1. Cell 4 is an interesting case where the cue patterns provide some information because one is directional. However, the consistency is low because the other cue is not directional. Again, the information value suffers because only one of the cues signals a consistent direction to the behavior over time.



In Cell 5 the cues are highly consistent in terms of toughness during any bid (i.e., point consistency is high), but are also not directional. The lack of direction lowers their information value. Finally, Cell 6 depicts cue patterns which are truly random. The correlation between concession toughness and message toughness over time is essentially zero. There are no directional patterns, so the information conveyed is minimal.

If at least one cue provides information that is inconsistent with the other available cues, the credibility of the bargainer will be damaged. For example, if a bargainer is inconsistent in her verbal communications, sometimes tough and other times soft, the degree of consistency between the message behavior and any particular concession will be high when the concession is small (large) and the message is tough (conciliatory) and low when the concession is large (small) and the message is tough (conciliatory).

This consistency information may be used to overcome the plausibility dilemma described earlier. The information value and the directional consistency of the cues determines the most plausible cause for the observed behavior. In other words, the most plausible cause for an observed behavior is the one which is most consistently signalled by the cues available in the interaction. If information related to temporal or directional consistency is not available for any reason, the degree of cue consistency during the one period of interaction (i.e., point consistency) may be sufficient to allow an ordering of potential causes in terms of plausibility.

Before proceeding, it might be helpful to reconsider our earlier example of causal analysis in bargaining. Consider again the situation in which a buyer is attempting to determine the cause of a seller's tough negotiating behavior. The seller claims to have a high break-even point as justification for an inability to concede beyond a certain point. The buyer realizes that the seller could be telling the truth about the external constraints on his/her behavior. However, the buyer also recognizes several other plausible causes for the seller's behavior such as greed, aggressiveness, the need to dominate, etc. In this setting, Kelley's multiple sufficient cause schema would appear to be appropriate. However, how is the buyer to evaluate the relative plausibility of these competing explanations for the seller's behavior?

The concept of cue consistency provides a differentiating mechanism in such a situation. Let us suppose that the seller's concessions have been decreasing in size over time in a non-linear manner, thereby signalling an asymptotic settlement price. In addition, the seller has been taking an increasingly long time to respond to the buyer's counter-offers while becoming more and more agitated and strident in his communications concerning the likelihood of conceding further. The observer perceives a high degree of temporal, point, and directional consistency. The strong cue consistency may make the external attribution (high break-even point) relatively more plausible than it would be otherwise, and increase the buyer's confidence in attributing the seller's behavior to economic constraints.

It is important to recognize that, just as there are several types of consistency information, a lack of consistency among the cues can take different forms as well. The effects of these types of inconsistency on attributional processing differ. Consider a situation where, instead of a non-linear, decreasing concession pattern, the seller has been making increasingly larger concessions over bids in the negotiation. This concession pattern is temporally consistent; however, such a pattern does not correspond with the soft-to-tough message and deliberation time patterns available. In this case, the low directional consistency should greatly weaken the external attribution being considered by the buyer. Similarly, if the seller's concession behavior did not exhibit a pattern at all (i.e., had been apparently random), directional consistency would still be damaged and the external attribution weakened.

This theory of attributional processing recognizes the complex interrelationships among the cues provided in a negotiation. The rich information value of the interaction of these behavioral cues provides a potential solution to the problem of multiple sufficient causes for a target bargaining behavior. From a cue consistency perspective, the patterns observable in bargaining behavior are more important to attributional processes than individual cues. A prediction that high levels of cue consistency can increase the plausibility of a factor as a potential explanation for an observed behavior is, in effect, a prediction that impression management can be used to outwit naive attributional processing in many human interactions. This should not be a surprising finding. Attempts to manipulate and manage impressions are part of the reality and richness of bargaining.


There exists a long-standing difference of opinion in bargaining research as to the basic nature of the cue-response relationship in bargaining (Smith et al. 1982). One school of thought, sees bargainers as primarily guided by a social norm of reciprocity (Smith et al. 1982). From this perspective, bargainers are likely to respond to tough bargaining behavior with correspondingly tough behavior of their own. When one party makes a concession, the other party is expected to reciprocate. Thus, if this hypothesis is valid, an examination of behavior in a negotiation should reveal a pattern of matched behaviors.

The aspiration level hypothesis posits that bargainers tend to adjust their initial expectations or aspiration levels in response to their bargaining partner's behavior (Siegel and Fouraker 1960). According to this explanation, a bargainer's aspirations and behavior are mismatched with the other bargainer's behavior. In other words, a bargainer will tend to lower his aspirations, make greater concessions, and settle at a less favorable outcome when the other adopts a tough bargaining stance. These responses are probably driven by attributional processes through which tough stances are attributed to a strong bargaining position and soft stances are attributed to weakness. When the opponent adopts a soft bargaining stance, a bargainer will respond by raising his aspirations and becoming more competitive. This is exactly the opposite of the prediction made by the reciprocity hypothesis.

Several studies indicate that Siegel and Fouraker's (1960) level-of-aspiration hypothesis is a better model of bargaining behavior (e.g., Siegel and Fouraker 1960; Yukl 1974a,b; Bateman 1980). On the other hand, an equally impressive number of studies have provided support for the reciprocity explanation (e.g., Benton et al. 1972; Esser and Komorita 1975). The dependent variables of interest in these studies include initial offer, concession size, concession frequency, the percentage of concessions which are reciprocated, settlement-price goal (aspiration level), and final settlement price. Predictions based on the competing theories of bargaining behavior are tested by observing the ways in which subjects respond to various programmed bargaining strategies. Unfortunately, space limitations prevent a detailed review of this literature. One important observation drawn from this literature is that bargainers sometimes behave in a manner consistent with an aspiration level perspective, and at other times, reciprocity seems to be operating. In fact, support for the two competing explanations for bargaining behavior often varies within an experiment depending on the type of measure considered (e.g. Yukl 1974a). How can this conflict be resolved? One approach to reconciling the contradictory evidence has been to attempt to identify the conditions under which either reciprocity or aspiration-level types of behavior are likely to be observed. Unfortunately, this stream of research has also produced equivocal results (Smith et al. 1982).

What is needed is a more sophisticated theory which does not necessarily make either-or, dichotomous predictions of when behaviors consistent with an adjustment of aspiration levels or behaviors consistent with the application of a norm of reciprocity will be observed. Both types of behaviors are clearly possible (even probable) during a negotiation. The position taken in this paper is that the relationships among cues and responses in bargaining are, at least in part, mediated by attributional processes occurring in the minds of both parties in a bargaining dyad. Whether a bargainer responds to toughness with toughness or concessionary behavior, depends on the nature and the strength of the attributions made to account for the other party's behavior.

Let us consider a simple, hypothetical bargaining example in which a seller is motivated to conduct a causal analysis of a buyer's behavior. The only cues that are available are the initial offer and the pattern of concessions. This is somewhat analogous to a real estate negotiation in which the bargaining parties never meet. Suppose the buyer has made a very low initial offer which was followed by a concession pattern characterized by relatively large initial concessions. The low initial offer seems tough, yet the buyer proceeds to concede generously. How is this behavior to be interpreted? Even this simple example requires some rather complex causal analyses which can be made only with full consideration of the context. If the seller's own concessions have been minimal, the buyer's behavior might be attributed to a weak bargaining position (i.e. buyer's wife must have the house, and this need is increasing; or the house is very attractively priced compared to alternatives), to a lack of bargaining expertise, or to a desire to cooperate with the seller. In this situation, if the seller attributes the buyer's behavior to a weak position or to ignorance, mismatching is likely to result as the seller hardens her own position to exploit the perceived weakness. On the other hand, if a cooperative disposition is attributed to the buyer, the seller may reciprocate with concessions of her own.

Now suppose that, as the negotiation proceeds, the seller notices that the buyer's concessions have been decreasing in size at an increasing rate. In fact, the concessions seem to be approaching a settlement price asymptotically. Now that a pattern is observable, the seller's causal analysis of the buyer's behavior may change to incorporate the new information. The plausible cause of the buyer's behavior now becomes a clearly signalled settlement price beyond which the buyer may be unwilling or unable to concede. In this case, assuming the signalled price is within the range of outcomes acceptable to the seller, the seller's behavior is likely to be mismatched with the buyer's as she concedes to the signalled price. If the signalled price is not in the acceptable range of outcomes, or if the seller feels manipulated, the seller may adopt a concession agenda that signals an alternative minimum settlement price. This is an example of matching behavior or imitation at the level of bargaining strategy (Pruitt 1981). The key point that should be emphasized here is that an effect of attribution on response is likely to be observed regardless of the type of attribution made to account for the other's behavior. For managed signalling or impressions to have an effect, it is not necessary for the observer to be gullible and willing to accept the information provided by the other's behavior at face value. Even if the behavior patterns are attributed to the use of a manipulative bargaining ploy or strategy, the observer's subsequent behavior is likely to be strongly affected by that inference.

The example used above is a simple one and assumes that the bargainer is aware of the behavior patterns of the other party. However, it does provide a demonstration of the capacity of an attribution-based explanation to reconcile the confusing and contradictory findings of earlier bargaining research. Of course, this is not to suggest that attributions are the only determinants of behavior in bargaining. Rather, it seems likely that many situational variables such as the relative availability of information, power differences, and individual difference variables such as interpersonal orientation affect the extent to which attributions guide bargaining behavior and even whether attributions are made at all.


Formal negotiations, in which a buyer and seller exchange a series of offers over an extended period of time, occur rather infrequently in both consumer and industrial markets. However, the importance of cue consistency to attributional processing and impression formation is not limited to formally negotiated exchanges. In any type of dyadic interaction in which a consumer forms an impression about the credibility of a salesperson or solicitor for a non-profit organization, the relationships among the behavioral cues provided by the salesperson or solicitor contribute to the formation of the impression. Even brief encounters provide consistency information which may be used to support or undermine attributions about the actor.

Consider a situation in which Joel, a consumer, enters an electronics store to shop for a compact disc player. The salesperson recommends a particular brand of compact disc player, claiming it to be superior in quality and sophisticated technology, albeit considerably more expensive than some competing models. The salesperson is professional in appearance. She speaks with confidence about the product's features and looks into the customer's eyes when making the recommendation. The product itself is attractive and seems to perform well in listening tests. Joel is not sufficiently well-informed about the relative quality of competing brands to make an independent judgment as to which one is better for him. Under these circumstances, Joel's thoughts might go something like this. "The salesperson could be telling me the truth. I know that Brand X makes reliable video cassette recorders. Maybe their audio disc players are well made too. On the other hand, the salesperson's commission could be higher on this machine. She does seem to be an honest person though and very knowledgeable about the product. I guess I'll take it." Joel's impression of the salesperson contributed significantly to his decision to accept the recommendation and buy the product. The key attribution was the salesperson's motive for suggesting Brand X. Several pieces of information were available for causal analysis, and all were consistent with the inference that the salesperson's behavior was caused by a genuine belief in the superiority of the recommended brand. Had the salesperson appeared evasive about the product or had some aspect of the product itself appeared shoddy, the attribution of truthfulness to the seller would have been weakened and the probability of purchase lowered.

In more formal negotiating settings such as media negotiations, real estate negotiations, or long-term purchase contract negotiations in industrial markets, cue consistency can be an important part of bargaining strategy. For example, if a seller is trying to justify tough bargaining behavior, it is important that such behavior be attributed to economic constraints rather than greed or aggressiveness. In other words, the seller wants the buyer to attribute the tough behavior to some external cause and/or one that is outside the seller's control. Otherwise, an attribution of greed or aggressiveness to the seller might result in a hardening of the buyer's position. The external attribution will be strengthened to the extent that the seller's other behavioral signals are consistent with such an explanation.


In this paper, four important parts of the attributional process were identified as particularly worthy of future research: (1) the identification of factors likely to instigate attributional processes, (2) the nature of attributional search and cue utilization, (3) the process by which available information is used to compute attributions, and (4) the nature and strength of the link between attributional processing and subsequent bargaining behaviors. Cue consistency theory was extended and introduced as a potential explanation for the way bargainers resolve the dilemma of choosing among several plausible causes for the other party's behavior. Finally, an example was provided to demonstrate the potential ability of an attributional perspective to reconcile a long-standing difference of opinion in bargaining research. While a vast body of potentially relevant attribution research exists in social psychology and allied fields, consumer researchers interested in buyer-seller negotiations have not followed up on their speculations concerning the crucial role played by attributional processing in bargaining. The authors are currently involved in a long-term program of research designed to provide some preliminary information concerning the nature and importance of bargaining attributions.


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