Adv Jacques Joubert

Independent Mediation Analyst

Commercial Mediator



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Neuroscience, hunter gatherers and settlement barriers.....

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

  In his book, The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators, Barry Goldman argues that heuristics (mental shortcuts or what we believe to be common sense) remain hardwired into our brains from the time of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This gives rise to cognitive biases that shape how we act during negotiation and mediation. He explains: "Thinking is expensive. It takes a lot of blood to run the brain, and it takes a lot of calories to circulate the blood. Thinking takes time and attention away from activities that evolution thinks are more important ... So we avoid thinking when we can. We use heuristics instead."

Negotiators and mediators who are aware of cognitive biases may have an advantage during negotiation and mediation. Goldman examines several biases, namely the affirmation bias - the need to get along; the confirmation bias - the tendency to overweigh evidence that support our opinions; the endowment effect bias - the tendency to over value things that belong to us; the fixed pie perspective bias - the belief that benefits that are due to be distributed are like a fixed pie that cannot be enlarged; the fundamental attribution error bias - attributing a more admirable cause for our own behaviour than for the behaviour of others; the loss aversion bias - the tendency for losses to loom larger than potential gains; the reciprocity bias – the tendency to share with those that share with you; the overconfidence bias – the tendency to believe your prospects are stronger than they actually are; the reactive devaluation bias – the tendency to devalue a concession or offer from the other party; the ingroup bias – the tendency to favour people who are like us, the basis for social cohesion (inclusion) and for discrimination (exclusion).

In his fascinating book Thinking, Fast and Slow, behavioural economist and Nobel Prize winner for Economics, Daniel Kahneman argues that cognitive biases form part of System 1 thinking. He uses the well-known gorilla example to demonstrate that 50% of a group of people asked to count the number of times basketball players throw a ball to each other, are oblivious of a man dressed in a gorilla outfit sauntering amongst the players.Their brains are unable to process enough information to see the gorilla while they are counting the ball!

Neuroscientists call this selective attention and it explains why a motorist may often not see a motorcycle or a pedestrian if he is looking to see if the road is clear of other motor vehicles. In a Santam advert, Ben Kingsley stands in front of a bar talking about insurance, while the clothes of the bartender standing behind him changes four times. Due to selective attention, few people watching the advert notice the change in clothing of the bartender. It turns out we have more blind spots than we realise, and the belief that we see the world as it is, is misguided.The lesson for motorists is to make a conscious effort to see pedestrians or motorcyclists on the road.

Selective attention may also explain why, especially during price negotiations, it is better to make the first offer. Research shows that there is an advantage in making the first offer because of what is known as the anchoring effect. In one test in Germany, half the mechanics were given a list price of R28,000 and the other half a list price of R50,000 for the same motor vehicle. The mechanics that were given the higher anchor estimated the same motor vehicle to be R10,000 more valuable than the mechanics that were given the lower anchor! It is suggested that high anchors often  direct attention to the positive attributes of goods or sevices offered, Consider this when next you fix your daily or hourly rate for mediation!

Selective attention may also be behind what Goldman and Kahneman describe as the framing effect. Goldman’s book mentions a study showing that doctors who were told that there was a mortality rate of 7% for a certain operation were more hesitant to recommend the operation to their patients than doctors who were told that the survival rate of the operation was 93%. It explains why reframing is one of the core skills of mediators. 

Mediators and lawyers have much to learn from neuroscience about cognitive biases and techniques to overcome them.

 [1] Barry Goldman (2008) The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators

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