Robert Benjamin on the Irrational Rationality of Mediation Models

Brain Gears

Robert Benjamin recently published another of his typically thoughtful and provocative essays at On Becoming a Rationally Irrational Mediator/Negotiator is the first part of an ambitious five-part series on the role of the irrational in conflict resolution. In this first installment, Benjamin sets the stage for a detailed challenge to the reliance on rational analysis at the heart of major theories of negotiation and mediation.

He points out that, contrary to theoretical assumptions, most people do not make up their minds on the basis of logical argument and well-honed evidence alone. Many non-rational elements are just as important, such as emotional reactions, bias of various kinds, stress and frustration, flawed logic, or fear of change. While practitioners have to deal with these human realities all the time, most theories of negotiation and mediation assume that people can suspend all that and switch on a mode of rational thinking at will.

It’s time, he argues, for the prevailing models of conflict management to recognize the full complexity of human behavior as it affects negotiated resolution. The non-rational dimensions of conflict need to surface and be dealt with rather than ignored at the theoretical level as well as in practice.

I would add a gloss on the word “irrational.” It doesn’t always mean the opposite of “rational.” It’s also about anything that operates beyond or separately from reason. For example, chance is an irrational factor in human affairs. I think of emotion, faith or tradition in a similar way. These are not the opposite of rational thinking; they are different influences and dimensions of experience in their own right.

Another example of irrationality, which Benjamin promises to discuss at length in an upcoming essay, is faith in the power of rational analysis and scientific method to solve almost any problem. He asks the question: Is it irrational to be a rational mediator?

The interest-based model of negotiation, with the related concept of the joint gains or “expanding the pie” strategy, exemplifies the rational approach to reaching agreement. It proceeds by establishing a set of objective principles or criteria for evaluating options and assumes that feelings, action and thought will all conform to these principles. A dispassionate testing of the options against the criteria should yield the optimal solution.

If problems remain, the tools of persuasion that most often come into play rely on enhancing rational analysis to address specific concerns. Technically accurate evidence, objective weighing of alternatives and logical argument will ultimately prevail. The assumption is that a group will follow this rational path to the point where participants are satisfied that their interests have been met, and so reach agreement.

Irrational elements are not necessarily ignored by the process. After all, the interests that participants are trying to satisfy go far beyond money and economic advantage. They can include all sorts of irrational motives like religious belief, cultural tradition, political necessity, public opinion, reputation, the value of a relationship, among many others. Some of theses values and motives will also be reflected in the principles and criteria that a group agrees will guide the evaluation of proposals for resolution.

I say “some” because, under the theory, there is a sorting out of “true” interests that can yield to negotiation from the values and claims to legal right that are not negotiable. In doing so, however, it’s often the case that precisely those irrational factors that influence human decision-making the most are pushed off the table.

Values and motives relating to religion, political ideology or culture may not be negotiable, but they certainly affect the ultimate willingness of an interest group to accept an agreement. Subordination of these elements can often lead to refusal to accept even the most rational of resolution proposals. The irrational doesn’t go away just because it’s not on the table.

Benjamin’s call for revisions to the prevailing models is especially timely in light of new scientific findings. He points to recent neuroscience research as evidence that the human mind simply doesn’t work in a linear fashion. Instead, there’s a “messy” and constant interplay among many parts of the brain as different dimensions of important decisions are considered.

It’s time for the models to match the full complexity of human behavior and incorporate new tools for addressing the irrational factors of decision-making. These factors shouldn’t be considered beyond the theoretical reach of conflict resolution. There are too many practitioners who know that rational analysis is not the whole story.


2 Responses to “ Robert Benjamin on the Irrational Rationality of Mediation Models ”

  1. My sense is that the position/interest model fails to appreciate the difficulty in getting people to unpack their positions into larger interests – not all mediations are appropriately modeled on treaty building exercises or those experiences.

    However, I very much doubt that we should be looking to a young field like neuroscience for insights about effective persuasion. Rhetoric is a far older field.

  2. Hello, Michael –

    That’s true. Especially in the public policy area, people don’t reveal their interests at the outset. Sometimes they do when deeper into the process, but the model puts a lot of trust in the process of generating options and developing objective criteria for evaluating them. I often find that the implications of the options and criteria reveal unstated interests, but the process doesn’t work if a stakeholder insists on an option without giving a full explanation. A great deal depends on less tangible dimensions, like building trust, the quality of dialogue, skill of the mediator, etc. None of that is unique to one model.

    The findings of neuroscience are often blown way out of proportion. The science isn’t giving us “new” knowledge of human behavior and abilities, but it is deepening the understanding of the brain processes that support them. As you say, the analysis of what constitutes effective persuasion goes back thousands of years – but the behavior and human responses go back before there was any form of analysis.

    But if neuroscience helps people look more closely at what’s going on around them or in their own lives, that’s great. There are a lot of people who won’t accept something until they see the results of experiments.

    Thanks for your comment.