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distributive bargaining

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Distributive bargaining is an adversarial type of negotiation in which it is assumed that any gain of a competitor is a loss to the other party. In game theory, that scenario is known as a zero-sum game.  

Distributive bargaining is a realistic approach to some situations. Metaphorically, sharing a pie is commonly used to describe distributive bargaining: A pie is a limited resource and if one person gets more, the other person gets less.   

Some negotiators use unscrupulous tactics in that type of situation and may become secretive, manipulative, punitive or deceptive. An adversarial approach to negotiations can lead to less-than-optimum outcomes. Both parties could, for example, withhold information that would benefit the other party, resulting in a less favorable outcome than might otherwise be possible. According to research, hard bargainers are more likely to get what they want out of negotiations -- but that win may come at the cost of future business. 

Distributive bargaining contrasts with integrative bargaining, a more cooperative approach that seeks to maximize the benefit to both parties. In reality, most negotiations include elements of both distributive and integrative bargaining.  

This was last updated in July 2018

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