Social Science Research
We have gathered the following summaries because the findings may be useful to dispute resolution practitioners and suggest avenues for further research.
Social Comparison Affects Reward-Related Brain Activity
Dispute resolvers have found that a person’s sense of fairness affects their willingness to settle a conflict, and it appears that people care about not only how they fare but also how the other side fares. The study referenced below describes brain research that backs up this observation. This study shows that certain forms of brain activity correspond to comparing one’s own gains against those of others, and to feeling good about winning more than your partner. “Social Comparison Affects Reward-Related Brain Activity in the Human Ventral Striatum,” Science, Volume 318, 23 November 2007. An abstract of the article can be found here.
Scientists Image Brains of Participants Cooperating, and Feeling Good
Cooperating with other people can make you feel good. Scans of the brains of female research subjects playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game showed a positive response, and the greatest response, when a) both participants cooperated with each other, and b) the subject being monitored thought she was playing against another human and not a computer. The brain regions that were activated are known to be involved in pleasurable experiences. The scientists chose only women participants for this study because so few studies have looked at only women, and because of published reports that men and women play the game differently, especially in the presence of a male experimenter. Neuron, Volume 35, 395-405, July 18, 2002
Many Litigants Miscalculate (or Ignore) Odds of Winning at Trial
Dispute resolvers often wonder how the parties in a case that’s headed to court assess their BATNA – their “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” This study suggests that litigants and/or their lawyers often do not assess their BATNAs accurately. A study shows that many litigants (61.2% of plaintiffs and 24.3% of defendants) decide to pass up a settlement offer and go to trial when their odds of success, and the likely award at trial, favor settlement. Significantly, while the defendant error rate was substantially lower, the average cost per error to the defendant was $1.14 million, compared with a $43,100 average cost per plaintiff error. Some unanswered questions: are some litigants more willing to take risks where (a) they are seeking to establish a precedent or avoid one, (b) there is an issue of principle at stake, or (c) the litigants have an emotional stake in the outcome? The findings in this study are consistent with research on human behavior and responses to risk, namely, that people are more averse to taking a risk if they are expecting to gain something (plaintiffs) and more willing to take a risk when they have something to lose (defendants). A copy of the study can be found here.
It has been said there are three sides to every dispute: my side, your side, and the truth. The manner in which we describe our memories may actually distort them and alter the way we recall them in the future. Psychology professor Jonathan Schooler of the University of Pittsburgh, who discovered the effect of “verbal overshadowing,” defines the phenomenon as a situation “in which one tries to describe difficult-to-describe perceptions, thoughts or feelings, and as a result of that, loses access to the very information they're trying to describe." Several experiments have shown that when people ruminate over feelings, it can interfere with accurately assessing them. “Verbal overshadowing” does not tend to affect memories of things that lend themselves easily to words anyway, such as simple descriptions of actions or chains of events. An abstract of the article, “Verbal overshadowing of visual memories: Some things are better left unsaid,” 22 Cognitive Psychology 36-71 (1990), can be found here.
Building Positive Emotions in Mediation
Research shows that when we are feeling positive emotions, we show patterns of thought which are more flexible, unusual, creative and inclusive, in contrast to the experience of negative emotions, which can narrow our thinking and attention and can make us feel “stuck” in a problem. Positive emotions can undo the effects of negative emotions. Mediators can help clients overcome “stuckness” by modeling positive interactions and building positive emotions in clients, such as by complimenting clients for their commitment to sit at the mediator’s table and through asking solution focused questions. A link to the article can be found here.
Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay
A basic sense of fairness about how rewards should be shared in cooperative circumstances may be innate in humans and other cooperative animals. In this research, scientists demonstrate that female brown capuchin monkeys respond negatively to unequal reward distribution in exchanges with a human experimenter. The monkeys refused to participate in the experiment if they witnessed another monkey obtain a more attractive award for equal effort, an effect amplified if the partner received such a reward without any effort at all. These reactions parallel human reactions to wage inequalities and support an early evolutionary origin of inequity aversion. Nature, Volume 425, 18 September 2003
Divorce and Separation are Correlated with Risk for Suicide and Suicide Attempt
Marital separation and divorce are emotionally trying experiences for virtually everyone who goes through them. A recent study from Ontario finds that divorce and separation are correlated with suicide and suicide attempts, and examines gender differences in this behavior. The study suggests that participation in non-adversarial divorce proceedings which support collaboration and tend to de-escalate conflict, such as divorce mediation, would make a positive contribution to decreasing the risk of suicide and suicide attempts by estranged partners. A link to the article can be found here.
Doctors and Apology
Although for decades malpractice attorneys and insurance companies have counseled physicians to “deny and defend” when medical errors occur, new findings are emerging that the opposite approach – a swift acknowledgement of error and a personal apology to the injured patient – can de-escalate the conflict and prevent a lengthy and costly lawsuit altogether. Other factors that can help prevent lawsuits are full disclosure when errors occur, quick compensation (even for less than plaintiffs might win at trial), and, where applicable, for the hospital to correct the error promptly and free of charge. By using this new approach of full disclosure, the University of Michigan Health System was able to reduce its number of existing claims and lawsuits from 262 to 81 in six years, and to reduce its legal defense costs by two-thirds. The time to dispose of cases has halved. A copy of the article can be found here.
Empathy and Physicians
Doctors’ bedside manner can have a direct impact on your health. A study shows that a clinician’s empathy, as perceived by patients with the common cold, significantly predicts subsequent duration and severity of illness, and is associated with immune system changes. Empathic communication can have real, measurable, physiological (and therapeutic) effects. Brains, Behavior and Immunity 22 (2008)
Gender Stereotypes and Negotiation Performance
In this study researchers reviewed the vast literature addressing gender and negotiation, with an eye toward identifying the myriad of social and contextual possibilities other than innate gender differences that could account for the differences between men and women in negotiation style and outcome. The authors discuss how harmful gender stereotypes and societal gender expectations work on the large and small scale, and what might be done both to better understand the stereotypes and to move beyond them in negotiation contexts. The research has profound implications for the reasons behind, and approaches to closing, the wage gap. Research in Organizational Behavior, Volume 26, 103-182, 2005
Essential Attributes and Skill Sets for Mediators
The key to mediator success lies in developing rapport with the disputing parties. What is involved in successfully forming that rapport? Two scholar/mediators identify the attributes and skill sets of successful mediators and identify reasons for mediator failure. The article is adapted from "The Secrets of Successful (and Unsuccessful) Mediators," which appeared in 23(4) Negotiation Journal, 393-418 (October 2007) (available at www.blackwellpublishing.com).
How Racism Hurts - Literally
Recent research shows the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” to be untrue, and links the experience of racism to a variety of adverse health effects. Studies show that it is the victim’s perception and experience of racial bias, and not the perpetrator’s intent, which is linked to the victim’s adverse health effects. Researchers face institutional barriers to studying the health effects of racism, including in securing funding. Boston Globe, July 15, 2007
Scans of Monks’ Brains Shows Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning
Long-term practice of “compassion meditation,” in which one generates a state of unconditional loving-kindness and compassion, and an “unrestricted readiness and availability to help living beings,” leads to changes not only in the mind, but also in the areas of the brain involved in positive emotions and the desire to help others in distress. fMRI scans of the brains of two groups of volunteers were compared -- those of novice meditators, and those of Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours practicing compassion meditation. The results showed marked differences in brain activity between the groups during meditation practice. While the novice meditators showed a slight increase in gamma waves, most monks showed a degree of in gamma waves of a degree never before reported in scientific literature in a non-pathological context. The results may lend support to theories of neuroplasticity involved in moment-to-moment awareness and offer a promising research strategy into higher-order cognitive and affective processes, and indicate that meditation training may affect the brain itself. A link to the article can be found here.
Musicians' Brain Waves Are Also in Tune
Brains – and minds – may synchronize when people cooperate closely. Research suggests that when musicians play together, they may think together as well. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin looked at electrical activity in the brains of eight pairs of guitarists. They monitored patterns of brain waves as the musicians played a short jazz-fusion melody together up to 60 times, and published their findings in the journal BMC Neuroscience. The study reported that the frontal and central regions of the guitarists’ brains synchronized to a high degree. The temporal and parietal regions also showed significant synchronization in more than half of the pairs. Further research needs to examine whether this inter-brain synchronization is causally linked to interpersonal action correlation or merely reflects the similarities in the precepts and movements of the interaction partners. A link to the article can be found here.
Dr. Albert Mehrabian, in his 1971 book Silent Messages, reports that three elements account differently for our liking of a person putting forth a message concerning their feelings: verbal, vocal and visual. For effective and meaningful communication about emotions, these three dimensions have to be congruent. When they are incongruent, i.e. when someone says “I do not have a problem with you” while sounding or acting anxious and avoiding eye contact, the listener is more likely to weigh some forms of communication more heavily than others. The relative weights found by Dr. Mehrabian are:
Verbal liking (words) – 7%
Vocal liking (voice tone) – 38%
Visual liking (facial expressions & body language) – 55%
In the incongruous example above, therefore, the listener is much more likely to believe the tone of voice + body language (message of dislike) over the actual words spoken (“not having a problem with you”).
Dr. Mehrabian’s work is often mischaracterized. These findings are not applicable to all communications, only to communications of feelings and attitudes.
A Recent Finding on Oxytocin
Spraying a certain neural chemical up participants’ noses made them friendlier to their partners and caused them to produce less stress hormone during a lab-controlled couple conflict discussion. Swiss neuroscientists have found for the first time a direct connection between levels of oxytocin in the brain and couple bonding in human subjects. In a double-blind, placebo controlled design, 47 heterosexual couples received oxytocin or placebo in their noses before a standard instructed couple conflict discussion in the laboratory. The conflict session was videotaped and coded for verbal and non-verbal interaction behavior. The level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in participants’ saliva was repeatedly measured during the experiment. Oxytocin significantly increased positive communication behavior in relation to negative behavior during the couple conflict discussion and significantly reduced salivary cortisol levels after the conflict compared with placebo. The results, in line with animal studies, indicate that oxytocin in the brain facilitates approach and pair bonding behavior, implying an involvement in couple interaction and close relationships in humans. Biological Psychiatry, 2009, 65:728-731
Reciprocity is Asymmetrical
Negotiations are a dance of giving and taking, both of monetary value and of non-monetary value. Unlike strict, one-time economic exchange, ongoing social exchange has no well defined “value.” It is based on the norm of reciprocity, in which giving and taking are to be repaid in equivalent measure. Although giving and taking are colloquially assumed to be equal actions in human interaction, this study demonstrates that they produce different patterns of reciprocity. Positive reciprocity by the decision-making player (here, actually a computer) produced reciprocity in equal measure, while negative reciprocity resulted in more selfish reciprocity. In another trial, however, where participants not only played the “giving/taking” game but also a “gaining/losing” game in which participants thought their gains or losses were attributed to chance rather than to the choices of another participant, the participants were less generous after “gaining” than after “losing.” The asymmetry described in this paper may provide insights into the apparent ease with which conflict escalates and the tendency for generosity and compassion to “merely sputter.” The experimenters conclude that instead of “an eye for an eye,” the adage might better read: “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours, but if you take my eye, I’ll take both of yours.” Psychological Science, Volume 19, Number 12, page 1280, 2008
Analysis of the Market for Mediators in Private Practice
The supply of willing mediators far exceeds the demand for their services. This article presents data showing that income distribution in the market for private mediation is uneven, and suggests that the market is a winner-take-all market, where a few mediators at the top of the pyramid are busy and well-paid, while most of aspiring mediators are constantly looking for work and making little to no money. This article proposes economic reasons that contribute to this phenomenon and discusses the implication for aspiring mediators and for the design of mediation training programs. A copy of the article can be found here.
Reactive Devaluation and the Value of Mediation
How favorably people react to an idea depends on who proposes it and their perception of that person or source. Researchers at the Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation have investigated reactive devaluation, that is, people assess and respond to conflict resolution proposals differently depending on the source of the suggestion. Reactive devaluation has implications for how each negotiation party is likely to respond, depending on whether a proposal originated from the parties themselves, from a mediator, an outside expert, etc. The Stanford study used a sidewalk survey on nuclear disarmament in 1986. When the researchers told one group of Americans that a US leader had proposed an immediate 50% reduction in all missile stockpiles, 90% of the Americans rated the proposal as favorable to the US. When another group of Americans was told that a neutral party had proposed this idea, the number approving dropped to 80%. And when a Soviet leader was identified as the source, only 44% supported the proposal. (In reality, Soviet leader Gorbachev had proposed such missile reductions and the idea was dropped in part because it was so poorly received by the American public.) A description of the study can be found here.
Divorce and Family Law
The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (2001, Vol. 69, No.2, 323-332) has reported a study on families who had been randomly assigned to mediate or litigate their child custody disputes. In comparison with parents who litigated custody, parents not living with their children who mediated custody maintained more contact with their children and had a greater influence in co-parenting 12 years later. The 12-year follow-up data indicate that, even in contested cases, mediation encourages both parents to remain involved in their children's lives after divorce without increasing co-parenting conflict.