Student Stories

Ping-Ya Chao Takes Interdisciplinary Approach To Negotiating Research

For Carnegie Mellon University senior Ping-Ya Chao, a good negotiation means great communication and strategy.

Chao, who is double majoring in policy and management and chemistry, is applying science to improve the art of negotiation. Her undergraduate research project could potentially uncover influential conversation tactics and strategies.

“Negotiation, as a general term, applies to everyday life. It goes from arguing about who should do which chore — such as taking out the trash — to more complicated things like business mergers,” Chao said.

Her research examines one-on-one negotiations to measure transactivity, a term for how people build upon each other’s reasoning. Examples of transactivity include snippets of conversation when a speaker asks a clarifying question that demonstrates active listening or when someone presents a counteroffer that integrates both parties’ ideas.

Chao is part of the Science and Humanities Scholars program, a joint program within the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Mellon College of Science. For her summer research she partnered with researchers in CMU’s School of Computer Science and the Tepper School of Business to complete her project.

Taking a business perspective, Chao focuses on the interactions of negotiations taking place between recruiters and job candidates. Her research last summer was funded through the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program, and she continued it for her senior thesis.

Chao worked on developing a machine-learning algorithm that will be applied to an analysis of one-on-one job interview transcripts. Chao details some of the process on the Dietrich Honors Research Fellowship blog.

“Step one involves figuring out a coding scheme and deciding what dialog is transactive,” Chao said. “We’re trying to make it consistent and detailed enough so that two people can look at the same transcript lines and say, ‘this is transactive.'”

Tepper School’s Ki-Won Haan, a Ph.D. student of organizational behavior and theory, mentored Chao on the project. Haan said that coding requires critical thinking, coordination and most of all, patience.

“Ping-Ya helps with making the process more efficient by writing scripts that can automatically organize and process the data,” Haan said. “Working with her so far has been such a pleasant experience.”

In the second phase of her research Chao will conduct laboratory studies to test hypotheses that examine how power dynamics and changing whether negotiators approach each other collaboratively or competitively can influence transactivity levels and subsequent outcomes.

“Usually, novices approach negotiation with the mindset that it’s a zero-sum game. In other words, there’s no way for a win-win solution. I’m curious if there is a way to prompt a better mindset, and therefore reach a better outcome,” Chao said.

Chao’s research was sparked by conversations with Tepper’s Maria Tomprou, adjunct professor of organizational behavior and theory, and Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory.

Woolley, along with Haan, Carolyn Rosé, a professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute and Language Technologies Institute (LTI), and James Fiacco, an LTI doctoral student, co-wrote an award-winning paper on the topic, “Taking Transactivity Detection to a New Level,” published by the International Society of the Learning Sciences. Woolley introduced Chao to Fiacco and Rosé to discuss her work.

“Ping-Ya is one of the most interesting undergrads I have ever met. In addition to her chemistry and policy and management double major, she also is quite strong in computer science while also being quite deeply interested in negotiation,” Woolley said. “So, she has the perfect combination of skills and interests, and this is quite an ambitious project, even for a Ph.D. student, let alone an undergraduate.”

Chao said she always had an interest in chemistry and was drawn to studies involving human interactions, such as negotiations, human resources, management and international relations. Her broad interests brought her to CMU.

“I want the freedom to choose all of those areas in a somewhat structured manner. CMU’s interdisciplinary studies allow me to cultivate all of these interests,” Chao said.

■ Ann Lyon Ritchie