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Negotiating Happiness: Managing Peoples’ Predictably Irrational “Focusing Illusions” – Part 1

“All happiness or unhappiness solely depends upon the quality of the object to which we are attached by love.”
                                                          -Baruch Spinoza

Many animal species appear to display the emotional states of happiness and unhappiness.  Unique to human beings, however, is the active, conscious, and compelling pursuit of happiness as a life purpose. People devote considerable time and energy to planning, discussing, and conniving over how to obtain the sense of wellbeing and satisfaction that forms the core of happiness. Especially in the Western techno-rational cultures where happiness is viewed as much a legal right as an individual need, happiness is high up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality, 1954). So important is the pursuit of happiness that when one person’s or a group’s idea of happiness is at odds with another’s, there is likely to be conflict.

Conflicts over differing ideas of happiness can be intense; one person’s dream for a perfect life or world is invariably another’s idea of hell on earth.  Virtually all conflicts are, in essence, contests over differing ideas of happiness. Most parents gain a sense of satisfaction by investing in and protecting their children’s’ welfare and will fight any perceived threat to their welfare; business partners, whose dealings, ventures, and dreams of success turn sour, often end up in conflict; writers, artists, and inventors seek happiness in their creative enterprise and will fight to protect work against any infringement.  In a similar fashion, most fights for social justice are about the wellbeing obtained by having a place in society.  Minority groups, be they based on racial, religious, cultural, ethnic, sexual orientation, or gender identity, either passively or aggressively, resist being marginalized and limited in their right to assert that identity.

The Science of Happiness: The Construction of Focusing Illusions in the “Messy” Human Brain

The pursuit of happiness is closely associated with the advent of human consciousness.  Antonio Damasio, a noted neurobiologist, has examined this evolutionary process in Self Comes to Mind:  Constructing the Conscious Brain (2010).  Extrapolating from his work, the emotional state of happiness arises out of a combination of the human brains imprecise memories and reinvented past, and an imagined and idealized future that appears to offer up what one feels he or she rightfully deserves.  Tempered by the surrounding political, cultural, and environmental realities, every human being concocts or fixates on a notion of what they think will make them happy in life.  

Daniel Kahneman, along with other cognitive psychologists, has termed this thinking a “focusing illusion.”  It is one of the many manifestations of predictable irrationality in human thinking and decision making that he has catalogued over the last four decades  (Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011; Kahneman, and Tversky, Amos, Choices, Values, and Frames, 2000).  Identifying such illusions as irrational is not to suggest they serve no useful, necessary, or even rational purpose. A focusing illusion is not an entirely conscious or rational choice in the traditional sense, but is nevertheless a strong influence in a person’s decision-making and judgment.

Focusing illusions are not avoidable, nor are they either good or bad. As much as they might seem to be a hindrance, clouding peoples’ thinking and add another level of confusion to their decision making, they also help them decipher and define a life purpose and provide the inspiration and motivation to realize their goals and achieve a level of satisfaction.  

Kahneman identifies the focusing illusion as a first order heuristic bias and vivid demonstration of human predictable irrationality.   What most people think, or more accurately, feel, will make them happy is commonly “a massive error of affective forecasting.’” (Kahneman, D., Thinking Fast and Slow, 398-407, 2011,)   An example common to most of us is the belief that the “state of bliss” that often propels the ones decision to marry and make a relationship permanent, will remain in effect indefinitely, if not forever.  Countless novels and films are dedicated to perpetuating this romantic illusion notwithstanding the statistical probability that one out of every two marriages are likely to end in divorce, and most people report the “thrill is gone” within two to three years.

In like fashion, in the legal matters, the forecasting of favorable court outcomes, not just clients but their attorneys as well, against many studies to the contrary, the success of a new business venture, despite a conservative failure rate within 3 years of 60% or more, the belief cancer can be cured by positive thinking  (Ehrenreich, Barbara, Bright-Sided, 2009), or the power of algorithmic computer modeling to predict economic and financial success (Taleb, Nassim N., Fooled By Randomness, 2004), all follow the same pattern.A focusing illusion can withstand the onslaught of logic, reasoned persuasion, and the factual evidence and demonstrable proof graphically illustrated in a cost-benefit analysis exercise.  It bears repeating that not just people in general, but the professionals and experts, notwithstanding their training, education and experience, are equally susceptible to their own concoction of focusing illusions.  Their notions of happiness are commonly associated with obtaining the success and enhanced reputation bestowed by being proven correct and competent in their predictions.

This “predictable irrationality,” which is systemic in human decision making and judgments, should be of little surprise  (Ariely, Dan, Predictable Irrationality, 2008).  Our messy human brains favor quick and intuitive thinking processes, even if they are riddled with heuristic biases that are, as often as not, error prone.  After all, the practice styles and treatment choices of doctors, lawyers, counselors and mediators tend to be made out of familiar and conventional habits of the trade that have not been carefully scrutinized.  Heuristic biases are closely tied to standard rules of thumb and defended by:  “this is the way I’ve always practiced, and most others do as well.   That shorthand thinking is favored over the slower, harder, and more ‘effortful’ thinking that requires methodical analysis.  As a result, suggests Daniel Kahneman, such ‘irrational’ thinking is more the rule than the exception (Kahneman, D., Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011).  And, as Voltaire observed two centuries ago,  “the more ancient the abuse, the more sacred. 

 In the present day many people or professionals who negotiate like to pride themselves on being objective, pragmatic, and rational actors, that are able to act without such illusions.  Kahneman is dubious that anyone can avoid being predictably irrational.  Their denial and failure to take account of their own biases often makes it all the more difficult to deal with people and settle disputes. In short, focusing illusions are part of most peoples’ thinking most of the time and must be taken into account in negotiation, especially in conflict situations.

Studies in neuroscience and cognitive psychology in recent decades have compelled a re-examination of Rational Decision Making Theory that has held sway for the better part of the last century.  The definitions of rational and irrational thinking or behavior are becoming more blurry.  As emotion is factored into human decision making and judgment, clear distinctions have begun to erode. What was once deemed rational behavior can become downright irrational, especially when done by rote and left unexamined; conversely, thinking once viewed as irrational can be quite rational in given circumstances.  This is nowhere more evident than in managing peoples’ focusing illusions, which are all too often dismissed as irrational thinking to be avoided and sidestepped if at all possible.   Many negotiators and mediators do not see the relevance, let alone would they inquiry of a party about their idea of happiness in a dispute. Such a question might, however, offer useful clues to settlement.

Underlying most conflicts is the participant’s resentment about how the others have denied them the happiness they deserved. That “irrational” thinking is not likely to be assuaged by communication techniques and reasoned persuasion. In managing conflict, telling someone to “calm down,” as if such an intervention might operate to throw a switch in his or her brain to “be reasonable” seldom works and can often be counter-productive and encourage even greater frustration and resistance.   While reasoned approaches and techniques continue to be useful, alongside of them should be a growing awareness that they are seldom sufficient.

With the functioning of the human brain being a messy process, a negotiator or mediator needs to expect and recognize that there is no such thing as a “cool headed reasoner”  (Damasio, Antonio, Descartes’ Error: Reason, Emotion and the Human Brain, 1994).  As the most casual observation of our own decisions would bear out, and certainly those of others, be they in business or our personal lives, no decision is based purely on facts, and the cold calculation of present risks and benefits to our own or others self interests.  Even if there has been careful study of an issue, final decisions are always embedded in an emotional brain process that provides the ‘’gut instinct” necessary to “pull the trigger,” and make a final choice to act one way or another after the pros and cons have been tallied. The popular dichotomous thinking, that the right brain the source of creative and intuitive notions while the left brain is about analytical reasoned ideas, has been largely discredited as too simplistic.  There are many ways people, including professionals, self delude and deceive others, and ourselves albeit unwittingly. 

While troublesome to those who approach conflict management from a rationalist perspective, evolutionary psychologists have suggested deception and delusion serve an important purpose in allowing people to cope with conflict and stress.  All animal species, including humans, use forms of deception as a means of survival and procreation  (Rue, Loyal, By the Grace of Guile:  The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs, 1994).  While scientific inquiry and dedication to rational thinking are not likely to reverse the evolutionary process, they can help people appreciate their place and purpose. Peoples’ ability to construct alternative realities for themselves, especially regarding what might make them happy, often display a determination and resolve—sometimes bordering on stubbornness or crossing the line into fanaticism—that gives them the energy to take the foolhardy risks that lead to success (Trivers, Robert, The Folly of Fools, 2011).  Many entrepreneurs, artists, scientists and explorers are among those who have been thought, at one time or another, to be foolhardy.   Most recently, Walter Issacson aptly describes in his biography of Steve Jobs, the CEO’s ability to effectively construct his own reality and compel its acceptance by others in pursuit of the outlandish success of Apple Computers, Inc (Issacson, Walter, Steve Jobs, 2011).

 The focusing illusion of happiness is just such a mix of reason and emotion conflated together to allow a human a notion, or perhaps more aptly, a dream, or reason for living around which his or her life can be structured. A sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction is often drawn from pursuing the dream as much as it is from the realization of that dream. Informal musings on the nature of happiness have likely taken place from the time humans sat around the campfires in their caves and either uttered to each other, or drew on the cave walls, their hopes for the next days hunt.  In later centuries philosophers and theologians would draft formal written treatises on the nature of happiness. Only in very recent years, however, has the state of happiness been subjected to more rigorous scientific study by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists. The emerging discipline of positive psychology has sought to more carefully determine how people might consciously and intentionally designs their pursuit of happiness. While the emotional state is in large part a function biological/genetic temperament, it is also influenced by cultural cues, personal experience and choice. Not surprisingly, there is an ever-present risk for such studies to be overtaken by value judgments, or for findings to be prematurely misapplied or misappropriated by the ‘pop psych’ or self help markets.  This may explain why so many have found the subject so elusive and have been hesitant to wade into its serious study.

When the Pursuit of Happiness is the Source of Conflict.

Nowhere is the nature of happiness more at issue than in conflict.  In fact, peoples differing notions of happiness are frequently a source of conflict. While the term ‘happiness’ connotes to some a lighthearted or even frivolous topic, it is serious business. Peoples’ illusions and delusions of what will bring about happiness have fueled many acts of violence, most wars, revolutions, and terrorist acts. Religions and ideological systems are organized around a particular groups collective focusing illusion of what people should believe and how they should behave in order to obtain happiness, wellbeing, or a state of grace. Once happiness is reified into a code of behavior, those who have different notions are commonly deemed to be prisoners of a “false consciousness,” heretics, or traitors.  The core of conflicts between Democrats and Republicans with regard to the place of government in society, the respective roles of management and labor in the productions of goods, men and women’s expectations of each other in marriage and relationships, or the claims to land between a displaced Palestinian populace and a Jewish people historically maligned, are all examples of groups or individuals with conflicting focusing illusions. While those disputes are typically analyzed and discussed in political, economic, or psychological terms, at a base emotional level they are about the clashing notions and visions of what constitutes wellbeing and happiness in life. The concoction of their focusing illusions is —as it is for every person— in part made from an imperfect memory of the past and an imagined future of what is deserved and will give a feeling of validation and security. Any challenge to their focusing illusion, by definition, has no defensible logic or legitimacy and is construed as a challenge and threat that must be defeated.  Even more mundane disputes of every variety, be they business matters over money, contract rights or a patent, a relational matter between parents over their children’s welfare, or an employee rights in the workplace, are at core about the pursuit of happiness by those involved. 

Cultures dedicated to capitalist economic principles tend to spur the pursuit of happiness as a competitive sport; rightly or wrongly, the state of happiness is linked or conflated with success in life.  Success is operationally defined as being a winner or loser in varying tests, such as, the success of one’s children, the acquisition of money and property, reputation and standing in the community, among others.  The pursuit of happiness draws from the same evolutionary incentives that organize and impel people to win in all other human contests, including, a mate for marriage, sports, games, discussions, lawsuits, political elections, the negotiation or mediation of an issue, or outright warfare.  People are emotionally invested in the outcome of all such contests whether they are the active players, partisan supporters, or team fans.  All concerned draw a feeling of happiness from a perceived win.  Patriotism and group loyalty is often defined by the extent that a person takes personal pleasure from the collective win of their country and home team. The ultimate happiness competition, however, is in the successful procreation and survival of the species, specifically one’s family.  The biological dissemination of our “selfish genes” and the creation of healthy and successful progeny, otherwise known as children, are integral to happiness (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976).   History, literature, myth and folklore, regardless of medium—books, theatre, the arts, film, or the internet—are effectively the collective record, through fact and fiction, of the pursuit and negotiation of happiness, it’s elusive nature, achievement, or loss.

When—not if—the focusing illusions of happiness of one person or a group collides with those of another, there is conflict.  And, because the competing visions between people are often conflated and perceived as challenges by others to one’s self concept, they are often framed and treated as actual threats to his or her survival. As a result, the conflict is often escalated and intensified and where winning takes on an importance, which is disconnected and disproportionate to the matter in controversy. In the discussion of marriage between people of the same gender, for example, the happiness gays or lesbians that might be derived from the recognition of a legal right to marry, while having no demonstrable impact on the lives or rights of those opposed to such unions, nevertheless generates real fear, not of any direct danger, but about the offense caused to their idea of happiness derived from the notion of how the world should be ordered. At core, most conflicts, though they are characteristically framed and discussed in business, economic, political, or moral terms, are about peoples differing notions of happiness and the extent to which one person or a group can impose their ideas on others.

Next: Part 2: ‘Rationally Irrational’ Negotiation Strategies and Techniques For Managing Focusing Illusions </p>


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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