Perception and Reality: Why Women are More at Risk of Being Duped in Business

Do gender stereotypes about female gullibility make women more likely to be deceived in business negotiations? New research, led by Laura Kray of Berkeley-Haas, indicates that the answer is yes.


The paper is based on a trio of empirical studies of gender perceptions in negotiations that involved car sales, antique furniture, and real estate.

Among the findings:

*Women are likely to be seen as less competent than men at negotiation and as less likely to scrutinize a deal for signs of deception.

*Though women are more conditioned than men to display warmth and kindness, being perceived as “nice” isn’t a major liability in negotiations. In fact, negotiators who perceive their counterparts as warm are more likely to raise their ethical standards.

*The mere perception that women are more gullible exposes them to more deception in reality. Though it’s not clear that women actually are easier to mislead, the perception itself prompts more of their counterparts in negotiations to make misleading and even blatantly false claims. As a result, women are deceived more often than men.

Kray co-authored the paper with Alex B. Van Zant, a Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley-Haas, and Jessica A. Kennedy, a Ph.D. graduate of Berkeley-Haas and now an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University.

The first study measured gender stereotypes in the context of buying and selling cars. The study entailed 131 men and women at a marketing research firm, all of whom were asked to imagine themselves trying to sell a car. They were also asked whether they saw women or men as easier to mislead, and whether it was easier to mislead people who displayed warmth or competence.

The respondents, men and women alike, gave men the edge in spotting deception. Kray and her colleagues then tried to dissect the characteristics that fuel those stereotypes. The participants expected men to communicate more business competence, and they expected this perception to work in men’s favor during negotiations.

By contrast, participants expected women to display warmth and kindness – but they did NOT think the display of warmth necessarily implies more gullibility.

“The perception of being nice is less of a liability in a potentially deceptive situation than is appearing incompetent,’’ the researchers concluded.

In a second study, participants were asked to imagine themselves trying to sell an expensive antique chair that had a damaged leg. The participants were told that the damage had been concealed by a temporary fix, but that the leg would wobble as soon as the chair was used. The participants predicted that female buyers would be less likely than males to scrutinize the chair for such a defect, and they predicted that sellers were more likely to lower their ethical standards with buyers perceived to be incompetent.

In the third study, drawing an exercise involving nearly 300 MBA students, participants were paired up in the roles of real estate agents on opposite site of property sale. The selling agents were under instructions to sell the property to a buyer with a “tasteful” and preferably residential purpose. The buy-side agent, however, was representing a person who wanted to build a high-rise hotel.

The students acting as the buyers’ agents were given three options. They could be honest, saying they were not allowed to discuss their client’s intentions – which would raise obvious suspicions. They could be vague or ambiguous about the meaning of words like “residential.” Or they could outright lie.

Two independent judges coded the responses on a five-point scale of deceptiveness. Most of the buy-side agents gave responses that were in the middle-range — vague or ambiguous. But the relatively small percentage of people who blatantly lied were significantly more likely to lie if their counterparts were female. And people who gave the most honest answer were more likely to do so if their counterpart was a man.

This gender bias in deception patterns was also evident in self-reported lie admissions: buyers admitted lying more to women than they did to men.

“We found that women’s disproportionate exposure to deception lured them into more deals under false pretenses than men,” Kray and her colleagues write.

The researchers note that the women in that last study weren’t any more honest than the men. Women and men both seemed to share the perception that women were easier to mislead – and they were both more likely to seize the opportunity.

The researchers caution that the studies don’t prove that women are in truth more gullible than men. Rather, they show that the perception of women’s gullibility generates more attempts to mislead them. It’s still an open question as to whether women would prove better or worse at ferreting out deception if they were deceived at the same rate as men.

Either way, however, gender stereotypes about low competence and high gullibility have a pernicious effect on women. Women are more likely than men to experience deception in face-to-face negotiations, and they are more likely than men to be lured into deals under false pretenses.

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