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On Becoming A Rationally Irrational Negotiator/Mediator – Part 2: The Grip of Rationalism and the Myth of Rationality

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PART TWO: The Grip of Rationalism and the Myth of Rationality

“…consciousness (is) a form of comedy close to tragedy and logic (is) a crime, its perpetrators to be punished by offering them infinite numbers of absurd logical conclusions.” – Samuel Beckett

Fair warning: this part, on the origins of rationalism, will likely be hard for most practitioners to read. The demands of earning a living and being practice focused leave little time or patience for what appears to be the study of abstract and esoteric topics such as appreciating the extent to which Western history, science, and philosophy have directly shaped the basic working assumptions that under gird negotiation and mediation practice and training. Given how deeply ingrained and pervasive the influence of rational thinking is in the cultural ethos, however, awareness is essential if the rationalist thinking is to be reconsidered and modified.

The standard working presumption of the general public and most conflict management practitioners—based on their ‘unbiased’ self assessment— is that people are rational decision makers; they act in a generally predictable manner out of calculated self interest seeking to economically maximize gain and minimize loss. In this schema, the assumption is that most people, if it is explained clearly to them, realize that most disputes boil down to being just a question of money —a business matter—that must in the end, be managed in accordance by a civil and reasoned process. Most of the strategies, techniques and skills presently practiced and taught, therefore, are based on traditional notions of rationality, assuming people respond to reason and logic.

Paradoxically, this deeply ingrained rationalist thinking frame, and the Myth of Rationality it has spawned, is a primary source of the resistance to negotiative modes of conflict management—-exactly the opposite of what many might expect. This is because many people and professional practitioners conventionally presume, present and market negotiation and mediation in that tradition of rationality as eminently pragmatic and reasonable methods of settling disputes. Most fail to observe that most people, including the professionals themselves, do not make decisions or respond in an entirely predictable or rational manner, at least as being rational is traditionally defined. Therefore, to expect, require, or even hope for people to engage in negotiation in a spirit of “cooperation, trust and reason,” is frequently a naive expectation and a mediator risks losing credibility by even asking of frustrated people that they do so.

Studies in neuroscience, cognitive psychology and behavioral economics in recent years have begun to confirm what many experienced mediators and negotiators have sensed for many years, if not centuries. There are multiple non-rational, and “irrational” factors and influences present in most matters in controversy, such that the application of rational decision making principles are insufficient at best. Therefore, continuing to construe negotiation as a rational enterprise effectively serves to impede rather than further effective negotiation practice. Most of the strategies, techniques and skills of conflict management are derived from the rationalist thinking frame. In managing conflict, while reason remains the prescribed strategy of choice, and logic the preferred tool of persuasion, they may be the least effective means of convincing anyone of anything let alone dealing with complex issues or disputes.

For the grip of rationality to be loosened just enough to consider other less conventional thinking frames and approaches to conflict, requires at least a thoughtful review of the intellectual foundations of Western culture. This is anything but an esoteric exercise because it is unlikely that in a culture so deeply dedicated to rationality, conflict management teachers and practitioners will let go of that paradigm easily. Simple logic and reason are not likely to be enough and a more complete immersion in the history and scientific tradition of the Western ‘techno-rational’ world, and Donald Schon termed it, is necessary. (Schon, Donald, The Reflective Practitioner, 1981)

Western culture has, of course, achieved a level of scientific and technological advancement that is, without risk of hyperbole overstatement, amazing. And in the wake of the achievement, has conditioned professionals of every discipline to study and emulate the thinking and methods of science. However, the rationalist thinking frame that arose from scientific methodology need not be diminished or denigrated by the observation that, intentionally or unwittingly, a variety of cultural biases, and assumptions also followed along. Habits of thinking useful in problem solving in the context of the hard sciences have been applied to social sciences and in other contexts and the education and training in all professional disciplines have sought to apply ‘evidence based’ protocols and standards. And many working assumptions have been carried over from rationalist thinking frame to the study of how people make decisions and manage conflict. Over more than four centuries where notions of being objective and rational have been exalted and embedded in Western Culture, an abiding faith in conventional notions rationality has developed. Curiously, current scientific work suggests that those notions, while still valid to some extent, are no longer sufficient. In light of those studies, the definition of rational needs to be re-visited and behaviors previously been dismissed as irrational need to be incorporated.

At core, both the public in general and professionals in particular, want and need to believe that people are rational actors who, even in the midst of conflict, when properly informed, are capable of making rational decisions based on their calculated self interest. This notion essentially has set, and to a large extent, continues to set the boundaries for research, education, training and practice of all of the professional disciplines, including conflict management. Lawyers, counselors, doctors, and mediators like to presume themselves to be ‘neutral,’ ‘impartial,’ and rational actors who function ‘above the fray.’ Professing to be objective agents, most hesitate to acknowledge a level of bias that might interfere with practice.

In the traditional rationalist schema what is viewed as irrational behavior is only just tolerated to the extent it must be, but seldom viewed as constructive or useful to the decision making process. Considerable effort is given to containing and limiting what are considered digressive or disruptive behaviors such as emotional outburst, illogic, denial of ‘plain’ facts, or preoccupation with ‘side issues.’ Emotionality in particular, has long been closely associated with irrationality; in the strict rationalist credo its’ expression is considered, at the very least, a ‘waste’ of energy, or worse, aberrant behavior. The problem is one of definition; what is conventionally considered irrational, may be rational and what is accepted as rational may in fact be irrational.

In the ‘techno-rational’ ethos of Western Culture where solving the problem is paramount and ‘time is money,’ ‘objective’ reason and analysis and attention to the ‘bottom line’ are considered superior to feelings and emotion. The intellectual source of this discrimination is traceable to the 17th Century philosopher and mathematician, Rene’ Descartes who articulated the presumed distinction with the phrase, “cogito ergo sum,’ “I think, therefore I am,” clearly enunciating the preference and belief in the superiority of reasoned analysis over subjective sensation in the pursuit of knowledge. That hierarchy has persisted and been in the shadows of most discussions since. “You’re being unreasonable ….emotional ….hysterical, or irrational, are some of the many dismissive rhetorical comments intended to challenge the quality of another person’s argument. Subjective thoughts, including hints, ‘gut’ inclinations, intuitive senses, or tacit knowing, are all associated with emotion, lack a demonstrable factual base and therefore typically marginalized as suspect. As will be discussed in the next part of this series, until very recently, the emotional processes of the brain have been largely ignored, or dismissed as unworthy of scientific study even by scientists. (Purves,et. al. Principles of Neuroscience, 2009)

This definitional quandary between objective and subjective knowledge is, of course, especially problematic for negotiators and mediators because there is no available arbiter of rationality, and even if there were one, it might only serve to confuse the matter further. Most controversies begin with challenges to the facts and truthfulness of the other party or parties involved and to the extent the parties remain locked in those counter challenges, the settlement process can easily deteriorate further. Over relying on the belief that rational propositions or assertions can be definitively tested and gauged by objective and quantifiable criteria can be misleading. Conversely, subjective notions, while considered less ‘real,’ more amorphous and vulnerable to challenge, often drive a controversy and are ignored at the peril of a settlement. Finally, it stands to reason that when a mediator or other third party presumes to be an arbiter and presumes to judge rationality, he or she faces considerable risk of offending one or all of the parties and his or her credibility compromised, perhaps fatally.

Most people are ambivalent, resistant, and sometimes downright hostile, to the idea of negotiating at all, let alone with those they view as enemies or untrustworthy. Historically, however, when compelled, many negotiations have taken place between parties who do not like each other and whose rationality and capacity to be reasonable is in doubt. The tension between going to “war” and negotiating continues to be as strong now in the present day as it has been throughout recorded history. Thucydides recounted how various efforts to negotiate peace between the Spartans and Athenians over a 30 year span of time were thwarted in the Fifth Century B.C., in A History of the Peloponnesian War. His description of The Melian Dialogues, where the risks and advantages of negotiation were strategically assessed, parallels almost word for word the same kind of discussions that have occurred in every war and dispute since and continues to frame discussions of approaches to conflict between “liberals” and “realpolitik hawks”. (Kahneman, Daniel, and Renshon, Jonathan, “Why Hawks Win,” Foreign Policy, 34-38, 2006)

As the choices are framed in current day disputes, negotiated, political and diplomatic approaches are juxtaposed against the use of force, coercion or outright warfare. The substantive context of the dispute is unimportant, whether it is the current health care policy controversy or the ongoing Wars on Terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. In the health care follies, both intra party dealings between the liberals and conservatives, or in inter-party posturing between the Democrats and Republicans, the sides alternatively pursue either ‘principled’ ideological positions, couched in ultimatums and threats of tough ‘jam it through’ strategies, or a ‘softer,’ appeal for a collaborative consensus building approach. In the theatre of war, the juxtaposition is more stark with political approaches being juxtaposed against military approaches. The choices, more often as not, are inaccurately presented as dichotomous and mutually exclusive alternatives. The reality is that in warfare, there is a place for negotiation and in negotiation, warfare strategies can be instructive. (Benjamin, R.D. “Of War and Negotiation: Part 3, The Allure of War: If You Want Peace, Study War,”, April, 2008) In virtually every dispute, at some point or another, the parties involved will ultimately negotiate as a matter of necessity. Painfully, in many instances that negotiation will occur only after the real or figurative shedding of blood. Seldom is negotiation the first choice of warring or disputing parties.

The human brain sponsors neuro-chemical inducements for humans to fight or flee from stressful and threatening circumstances; there is no such neuro-chemical catalyst to support negotiation. Although the ‘instinct’ to collaborate is part of the human evolutionary repertoire, the decision to negotiate still requires a conscious, considered and intentional action by those involved. But Aristotle and Plato did not know neuroscience. They, and the many who followed their lead, acting all too humanly, to fend off the chaos and confusion that constantly threatened from every direction, understandably began to construct patterns to explain events around them. A fair amount of their conjecture remains so astute as to remain valid thousands of years later. They began rolling the ball of rationalism and are not justly criticized for failing to apprehend the rationality of irrational behavior.

From Plato and Aristotle, and Socrates, through the Age of Reason, nurtured by The Enlightenment, and seemingly proven beyond question by the scientific and technological successes of the Industrial Revolution, Western Culture has wed itself to rational thinking, reason and the belief that logical analysis is the superior, if not only, effective means of problem solving.

After the Greeks, the rationalist thinking frame began to shape the Western world in earnest with the work of Issac Newton in the Seventeenth Century. His formulation of basic principles of physics revolutionized not only the world of science but the intellectual foundations of the culture. The then seeming capacity to precisely describe physical phenomena such as force and gravity in mathematical terms, set the groundwork for the belief in objective rational analysis and the ability to predict events. Since that time, the inference has been constantly drawn that the same principles and predictions could be extended and applied to human behavior as well.

Francis Bacon, another English scientist of the same Seventeenth Century vintage, would refine the concept of the scientific method by which to derive objective, valid and reliable facts which would become the gold standard for rational thinking. Contrasted to the then popular deductive and syllogistic approach to reasoning, he offered a coherent model of inductive reasoning. Instead of just assuming that if proposition A and B are true, c must follow, or for example, “she attended the baby at birth and the baby died, then she must be a witch,” Bacon required an actual experiment by which the assumption could be tested. Only from properly established facts could valid axioms be presumed to explain an observed circumstance, or allowed to become accepted as valid and reliable laws or principles. The intellectual distinction between objective and subjective knowledge began to emerge, with a decided preference for the dispassionate, objective, and impartial role of the scientific investigator or professional. The quest for truth, previously pursued solely through religious faith, from the Seventeenth Century onward, became equally available by scientific method, or so it seemed.

Subsequently, the knowledge base of every professional discipline, including the disciplines of psychology, medicine, economics and law, among others, would lay claim to that scientific methodology. Professional disciplines began to form in earnest in the late 19th Century. Each struggled to define for itself a unique body of knowledge and to establish protocols and standards of practice that gave it the appearance of being a valid and rational body. The structuring of those professions drew upon, made a claim for, and espoused adherence to scientific principles. Even the practice of law was brought to heel with the scientific method: Christopher Columbus Langdell, the founder of Harvard Law School, organized legal education around the notion that “law is science.” The importance of a discipline being able to claim scientific basis holds to this day and remains essential for emerging disciplines, such as conflict management.

After Newton and Bacon, the view that every problem had a correct answer that was discoverable by the application of the scientific methods became part of the folklore in Western culture. There is a determinable cause or for every effect or outcome and it only requires careful examination. This linear thinking frame remains standard in the problem solving business where outside objective consultant experts are commonly brought in to assess a problem circumstance, first by gathering information, then to diagnose the problem. Conflict management, not unlike other professional disciplines, that have imported a prescribed format for problem solving that is regularly taught and practiced.

The rationalist thinking frame has intellectually influenced the philosophical and political grounding of the United States in particular. Extrapolated from principles of classical physics, some philosophers have asserted the presence of Natural Law principles deemed applicable to human behavior and governance and conjectured to be universally valid and immutable. Incorporated in the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence are basic rights that are derived from Natural Law. Complementing the principles of rationalism is the notion of logical positivism that fuels the quest for truth. There is an abiding faith that dedication to objective and analytical thinking will result in the right answer to any issue. This belief, of course, leaves little room or need for negotiation.

John Rawls, a compelling Twentieth Century philosopher, updated the rationalist faith in universal truth in his primary work, A Theory of Justice (Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), suggesting there are basic, knowable principles of justice and fairness that comprise what he terms the ‘original position.’ Many practicing mediators start with a notion of an “original position,” and see their work as inseparable from the perpetuation of principles of social justice, or even further beyond mere conflict management, peacemaking. (Mayer, Bernard, Beyond Neutrality, John Wiley and Sons, 2004; Lederach, John P., The Moral Imagination, Oxford Univ. Press, 2005; Bush, R.A. and Folger, J., The Promise of Mediation, Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1994)

Isaiah Berlin, a noted 20th Century intellectual historian and philosopher, observed Western ‘techno-rational’ Culture has effectively been anchored in three fundamental operating premises. First, there is ‘the truth;’ second, that truth is discoverable; and third, there can be only one truth. Borrowed from science, the belief quickly spread and pervades the cultural ethos that every issue has a right answer and every problem has a proper remedy or cure. As Berlin comments, in a world understood in stark ‘black and white’ terms, there is little room for gray; in a rational world dedicated to the quest for the truth, ambiguity is not easily tolerated. (Berlin, I., The Crooked Timber Of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, Hardy, H. ed., Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)

Ironically, many of the basic assumptions of classical physics that gave rise to the rationalist thinking frame have been cropped by Quantum and Complexity Theory, those shifts have not been entirely absorbed in the larger culture. (Benjamin, R.D., “The Physics of Mediation: Reflections of Scientific Theory in Mediation Practice,” Mediation Quarterly, Vol 8/No2, 91-113, 1990) The principles continue to apply to mathematically describe the dynamics of observable phenomena of the rate of an apple’s fall from a tree, but are ineffective in explaining the behavior of subatomic particles and other non-linear dynamic events. With the shift in physics, certainty of prediction of events and the discovery of the right answer were forced to give way to the Uncertainty Principal and more moderate estimates of mere possibilities of outcome.

The principles of classical physics were likewise ineffective in the understanding of weather systems, hydraulics, biological body rhythms, let alone the functioning of political, economic or other human organizations. Complexity and Systems Theory necessarily supplanted mechanical understandings of such dynamics.

(Bertalanffy, Ludwig von, General Systems Theory, 1968; Jervis, Robert, Systems Effects, 1997) Unlike principles of mechanics where an engine can only be the sum of its parts and those parts are interchangeable, in a dynamic system the whole is different and sometimes greater than the sum of its parts—it has a unique chemistry separate from the individual parts. The hope of many for clear universal laws of nature that would follow precise mathematical formulation and is reliably predictive has been largely cast aside. Estimates of likely possibilities are available, but nothing is certain as once thought.

This paradigm shift in science significantly influenced the understanding and development of conflict management in ways that are still not fully appreciated. First and foremost, the belief that objective facts and knowledge, let alone truth, can be discovered and known, is clearly in question. Especially in negotiation, truth is often the first casualty and little can be taken for certain. The biases of the not only the parties, but the third party professional are constantly in question.

The shift in thinking in physics did not come about easily and is still not complete. Altering patterns of thinking is exceptionally difficult and requires determined re-examination and reflection. (Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1962, 3rd ed. 1996) Even Albert Einstein, when initially presented with notions of Quantum Theory was skeptical famously declaring that he ‘refused to believe that God played dice” and that nature operated without principles of rational certainty. Conventional notions of rationality are a deeply embedded and pervasive pattern of thinking.

Curiously, and not a little ironic, the same shift in scientific thinking that remains problematic for many people and professionals in techno rational cultures—moving from the clarity of Newtonian physics and the belief in an ordered and rational world to accepting the uncertainty of Quantum Theory and the fuzzy logic of Complexity Theory– also gave impetus to the study and practice of negotiation, mediation and conflict management in the later half of the Twentieth Century. Specifically, the increased awareness of ambiguity in scientific thinking allowed for acceptance of the reality of multiple truths and possible outcomes present in most controversies, which is a necessary precondition for negotiation to be contemplated. The classical rationalist notion that there is only one discoverable truth and one right answer leaves little room for negotiation. Many conflict management practitioners, however, remain “schizophrenic”– in the popular sense of the word. While most accept the relativity of truth, the presence of multiple constructions of reality, and the fragility of language, meaning and communication, they remain cleaved to conventional rationalist principles. The devised strategies, techniques and skills most commonly taught and practiced are based predominantly on the presumption that people will engage in predictable rational decision making.

The atmosphere for the acceptance of negotiation as a rational approach to conflict management was primed by the Cold War and the then looming threat of nuclear Armageddon —the ultimate irrational perversity—which clearly focused the attention of the post World War II generation. Finding a rational alternative mode of conflict management took on a special urgency. Forced up against the instinct to survive, the conclusion was necessarily that insistence on pure ideological truth was unsustainable and multiple ideologies might have to be tolerated. One notable theorist, Thomas Schelling, an Nobel Prize winning economist, examined risk taking, bargaining and strategic behavior between antagonist nations in Strategies of Conflict (1960) and Strategies of Commitment (Harvard University Press, 2006). That early strategic thinking, initially applied to geo-political situations and the containment of Communism quickly seeped into the general culture. In the techno rationalist culture, professionals tend to specialize, such that mediation practice in a divorce or business dispute is viewed as wholly different from the macro level of conflict management practiced in international affairs.

The decision making and negotiation strategies and techniques practiced in one area, however, may be more similar than dissimilar. While every dispute is not the same and there are always nuances of history, culture and personality accents to take into account, in the end, most disputes are between individuals with their many predictable irrationalities in play. Therefore, less important than the context of the dispute in question is the efficacy of the approach to its management. Being too constrained by rationality may be a greater impediment to a practitioner’s effectiveness than practicing in an unfamiliar context. Specialization in a familiar dispute context can lead to habits and sometimes ruts in thinking. While there may be some discomfort in mediating in various and unfamiliar dispute contexts, the practitioner gains the opportunity to detect patterns and connections across the boundaries, become more attentive to accents and nuances, think more creatively and fashion novel approaches, all of which is especially important in managing complex and protracted matters.

The prevailing conventional wisdom, however, imported from early studies in social psychology and economic modeling, continues to rely on the more linear schema that piece-meals practice and assumes most people are rational actors. Computer modeling has catalyzed and intensified the belief that every circumstance can be ‘gamed-out’ and planned for. And at the extreme, some theorists continue to pursue and reinforce the belief that ‘fair, just, and equitable’ determinations to conflict can be logically deduced in accordance with mathematical algorithms. (Brams, S. and Taylor, A., Fair Division, Cambridge University Press, 1996.). The mathematical modeling of social interactions has remained a strong influence in the conflict management field. In the early 1950’s, Anatol Rapaport suggested that notion in Science and the Goals of Man and that work was elaborated upon by Robert Axelrod in his, now legendary “prisoners’ dilemma” exercise, sometimes known as the “Peace-War” game, first presented around this same time period. (The Evolution of Cooperation, Basic Books, 1984) That exercise is still part of the catechism regularly taught in academic courses and presented in many professional training programs to insinuate the rationalist premise that people prefer cooperation over competition and rationally make decisions out of their calculated self interest—all other factors being equal.

The operative words, of course, are “all other factors being equal.” On the streets, as it were, outside the artificial constraints of the laboratory, the exercise is subjected to many other random influences and variables that occur even in the most rudimentary decision making situations. Some years later, even Robert Axelrod acknowledged the limits of the validity that could be inferred from the “Prisoners’ Dilemma” exercise in decision making in, The Complexity of Cooperation (Princeton University Press, 1997)

To this day, neither the general public, nor many professionals’ easily accept negotiation or mediation as viable modes of conflict management. Thus, despite the increased visibility of services, little has changed and, while many see a profound need for negotiation and mediation, there remains and underwhelming demand. Many attribute this circumstance to ineffective marketing and the lack of information and argue that “if people only knew they had alternatives that could save them time and money, they would choose to mediate.” With such statements, their abject reliance on the effectiveness of logical persuasion and reason appears to be well intact.

Rational entreaties to negotiate, however, cannot easily overcome deeply ingrained and emotionally based resistance to negotiation and mediation, and may even bolster it further. Rational inquiry is directed toward resolving inconsistencies and ambiguity and obtaining a logical and coherent understanding and explanation of problems so that they might be finally solved; negotiation is far less audacious in purpose and accepting that factual differences may not be reconciled and ambiguity must be tolerated, at least for the present. In negotiation, pressing to make agreements conform to rational explanation may be irrational. That does not stop many from trying to impose logic where there may be little or none. The desire for rationality is as much an emotional need anchored in myth as it is the product of intellectual rigor. In Western culture, the Myth of Rationality is effectively an article of faith and appearing to abandon it is sacrilege. Negotiation sometimes requires just that abandonment of rationality—at least that of the conventional kind.

The Myth of Rationality

The Myth of Rationality, as opposed to the intellectual idea of scientific method and rational thinking, is an emotionally based faith. As in most matters, the affective belief is inextricable from the analytical commitment to reason. While scientists, philosophers and historians prepared the terrain, they are not the principal purveyors, creators or disseminators of the myth in the larger culture. That task is for the popularizers and storytellers. With every passing invention and discovery from the Industrial Revolution through to the present Cyber Age, the Myth of Rationality was reinforced and embellished. The media, including magazines, books, television programs, and movies, all have told stories that confirm the unquestioned validity of any outcome of scientific inquiry. Real science is, of course, far more circumspect in claims of certainty, but mythology trades on scientism and associates itself with the quest for the truth. Conversely, any person who claims to be objective, dispassionate and neutral seeks to cloak themselves in the mantle of credibility bestowed by higher order rational thinking.

Myths are stories of significance that inspire, guide, and help people make sense of the world around them. A myth is not a lie, per se, as the connotation of word is popularly understood, but neither is it the truth. A myth is the product of the human emotional need to believe in something, and to obtain a sense of understanding of and control over surrounding events. (Levi-Strauss, Claude, Myth and Meaning, University of Toronto Press, 1978 (1995) The Myth of Rationality, is one of the core operative myths in the folklore of Western techno rational cultures along with the Myth of Truth, the Myth of Justice, and the Myth of Finality. Together these operative myths give purpose and influence how people and professionals understand and deal the world, and with conflict. The myths reflect and perpetuate the rationalist view that the truth of any matter in controversy can be objectively discovered, and if the factual evidence is rationally presented to an impartial judge or tribunal, then a just result can be obtained, and once determined, the matter can be finally concluded and resolved. (Benjamin, R.D., The Effective Negotiation and Mediation of Conflict: Applied Theory and Practice Handbook, 9th ed.,, 2008.)

Myths are a source of inspiration that aid in fending off nihilism—the sense that all is hopeless and nothing will ever change. Creating the illusion of a clear purpose and process, allows for hope that circumstances can change. It is a constructive and useful form of self deception. (Rue, Loyal, By The Grace of Guile: The Natural History of Deception, 1994; Benjamin, R.D., “Managing the Natural Energy of Conflict: Tricksters, Mediators and the Constructive Uses of Deception,” 2004 ) Even sober scientific inquiry often starts with a myth of inspiration; the story of Icarus, for example, suggesting man could fly, was recounted for centuries before being realized. Similarly, in politics, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, constructively made use of mythology. With his famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington D.C., he drew energy from the Myths of Justice and Truth. Intertwining fact with hope in pursuit of racial equality and integration, he did not pretend there was justice for people of color, but created the illusion there could be.

In much the same way conflict management professionals hold to the myth of rationality and the expectation that people can settle controversies in a civil and reasonable manner. The quest for truth and the triumph of reason are noble and worthy goals to be incorporated in Western cultures’ operative mythology. In an otherwise chaotic world, the Myth of Rationality has considerable allure. But it remains a distortion of reality; the rational actor of the myth simply does not reflect the predictably irrational reactions of most people or professionals in decision making.

Mythology that can constructively inspire people can also act to limit and delude their range of vision. If the Myth of Rationality is believed so heartily that people deny the looming reality of randomness or other non rational variables that may intervene, they place themselves at risk. (Taleb, N., Fooled By Randomness, 2007). Belief in Rationality is useful, if not essential to the idea of progress; people need to be able to believe they have some measure of control over difficult circumstance.

Confusing myth with reality and allowing the slip into the notion that complex issues can be solved by logical reasoning and analysis alone, is delimiting and risky in several ways. First, it can foment and disguise a cultural bias as an objective and universal standard. The Myth of Rationality reflects the Western techno-rational tradition and is a culturally laced presumption that is even more glaringly limited when it is imposed on other cultures. For example, the ability and capacity of people in other cultures, such Haiti, Somalia, and many African, Asian, and other “third world” countries, to think rationally and logically is often questioned by Western agencies and governments. Often beset by man-made political, economic or natural disasters, even in the immediate wake of the devastating 2010 Earthquake in Haiti, some viewed the crisis to be due to cultural irrationality and corruption as did David Brooks in the New York Times, observing that the country “…suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences,” that have defeated the considerable international aid previously given. (“The Underlying Tragedy,” New York Times, January 15, 2010.

This form of cultural imperialism by ‘advanced-rational’ cultures towards lesser, traditional cultures is not new. In the Nineteenth Century Ruyard Kipling offered the patronizing suggestion, that such cultures were the “White Man’s Burden.” In the present day, such cultural bias can be found disguised in similar commonly heard assertions such as “American Exceptionalism.” Christianity, the still dominant faith of Western culture, lends moral support to such expressions. The sentiments of superiority of the Crusades have not been entirely extinguished. Some sects actively promote a “prosperity gospel” where technological and material success are offered as evidence of divine intention to reward Western nations. (Ehrenreich, Barbara, Brightsided, 2009).

Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel (W.W. Norton and Co., 1997), presents a compelling challenge to those ideas, and observes how easy it is to be lured into ‘scientistic,’ faux-rational, and reductionist explanations for such disparities between cultures. He catalogues several other randomly occurring circumstances and events other than innate intelligence or the rational thinking frame which significantly influence development, beginning with factors as basic as geography. Not only are people in traditional cultures equally intelligent and rational in their context, he offers, but many cultures have failed because they have remained captured by linear thinking that may have worked in one environment but does not work in another. (Diamond, Jared, Collapse, 2005)

The deep, present day economic recession, which is largely man-made, also dampens the inflated claims of superior cultural rationality by the United States and other Western countries. (Fox, Justin, The Myth of the Rational Market, 2009) Notions that bankers and business executives are sober, sensible and rational actors with a constant eye on the bottom line and who are coldly attentive to ‘objective’ economic indicators, have been largely re-assigned into the heap of fables, tall stories and lies. This is nothing new, economic bubbles caused by irrational exuberance have been a constant in Western markets, as has been the failure to remember them. (Mackay, Charles, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 2d ed. 1852 (1980)).

Notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary, the Myth of Rationality remains deeply ingrained in our culture and it is reified and perpetuated by every institution and organization.. The Myth has become sacred and core to the Western identity. Academic institutions, professional training programs, many films, television and other media reinforce the belief that all problems can be solved by logic and smart, rational thinking. Conversely, therefore, the failure to cure a disease or solve a problem is seen as being the result of either irrational or negligent thinking on the part of someone who should necessarily be held accountable, blamed, and punished. (Tilly, Charles, Credit and Blame, 2008)

Professionals, especially, must lay claim to being rational and their problem solving competency is assessed by the ability to engage in argument and persuade others by the power of logic and reason. (Tannen, Deborah, The Argument Culture,1998). However, while the effort to engage in critical thinking is commendable, closer examination reveals that people are seldom persuaded by logic alone. There are many non-rational factors that contribute which have largely been marginalized or ignored in favor of wanting to believe the myth that people are rational decision makers. Many try so hard to assume the demeanor and cultivate the habits of what is presumed to be rational thinking that often times those habits become delimiting ruts. The irrational rationality of current practice approaches will be examined in greater detail in Part 4 of this series; for now, however, consider how the presentation of the mediation process as civil dialogue or reasoned discourse is in many circumstances unrealistic and counter productive. If the frame of being rational and reasonable is too strictly imposed and the parties feel precluded from ‘irrational’ expression, then the real issues in controversy may never be realized or reached.

While the humans are certainly capable of objective analysis, however, the brain is also neuro-chemically disposed to reverting to ’time tested’ habitual forms of thinking, especially in stressful situations. The basic neuroscience and patterns that give rise to those forms of thinking will be more closely examined in Part 3, “The Messy Brain and the Ten Most Common Predictable Irrationalities.” For now, suffice it to say that those habits are audibly apparent whenever a practitioner prefaces a description of their technique or approach with a comment such as, “all I know is….,” “this technique always works for me…” In some instances, the reliance on logic and reason—the single most popular technique of persuasion used by mediators in conflict management practice— is less about being rational and more a habitual response.. Lee Ross has suggested that most people and professionals are psychologically susceptible to “naive realism,” the belief that that “if information and the risks and benefits are clearly presented with regard to available options in a dispute—-whether to go to court or negotiate a settlement—they will make a rational decision, and if they fail to understand, it is because they are mentally slow, closed minded, or pathologically compromised. (Ross, Lee and Ward, Andrew, “Naive Realism: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding,” Working Paper No. 48, Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation, 1995.)

The Myth of Rationality, at the outer edges, is the stuff of science fiction. Mr. Spock, the Vulcan First Officer in the Star Trek series, created by Gene Rodenberrry, was from an alien species and the character serves as the personification of the ultimate rationalist. Ironically, many people and professionals appear to have missed the point and try to emulate his dispassionate, wholly unemotional and objective approach to issues. While the rationalist demeanor has considerable allure, given our culture heritage, most human decisions are based on anecdotal experience or intuition and then bootstrapped up to being rational assertions of fact. In the end, as will be discussed in Part 3, no human decision, even one as basic as buying a car, is without an emotional component. Most practitioners take on the cloak of rationality more out of force of habit and because it is familiar rather than for any intention to deceive. Yet that unwitting pretense is risky nonetheless. Trying to force fit circular and complex issues into square rational boxes risks the loss of credibility and authenticity and may squander the opportunity to manage a dispute effectively.

If the grip of the rationalist thinking frame is to be loosened, traditional notions of what is rational must be reconsidered and the Myth of Rationality must be understood for what it is: an inspirational story, not the truth. While the commitment to objectively ascertaining facts that can be known, and bringing to bear analytical conflict assessment skills that conform to rigorous, critical, and dispassionate standards, need not be abandoned, the belief that the traditional rational thinking frame is sufficient in itself to effectively manage difficult issues is no longer sustainable. The definition of rational must necessarily be expanded to include what have been heretofore been ignored or dismissed as irrational thinking and behaviors.

Most professional conflict management practitioners and mediators intuitively understand and appreciate the necessity of being rationally irrational. It is often expressed as being the art, as opposed to the science, of practice. Unfortunately being characterized as ‘art’ allows many to believe it cannot be studied or taught. However, the functioning of the ‘messy’ human brain and how people actively use self deception and other devices to construct their reality is becoming increasingly subject to systematic scrutiny. Necessary now is to begin thinking more systematically how those “irrational” dynamics come into play so that they might be managed less by chance and more by design.

Becoming rationally irrational requires first, becoming aware of how the Myth of Rationality has limited how conflict is understood and approached; second, to obtain a working sense of the integrated functioning of both the analytical and emotional processes of the human brain and the points at which people are likely to be irrational in their thinking; third, to reflect on how the prevailing approaches to negotiation, mediation and conflict management are beholden to the rationalist thinking frame to an extent that may be dysfunctional given how people make decisions; and fourth, what ‘irrational’ strategies, techniques and skills might be devised so that practitioners might rationally counter irrationality.

If conflict management, negotiation and mediation are to be more completely accepted in the prevailing rational culture, then a more refined appreciation of how people make real life decisions needs to be developed. That awareness requires accepting the extent of “irrational” thinking that goes on and how much of what passes for rational is a facade.

February 1, 2010 Next: “Part 3, The ‘Messy Human Brain’ and the Ten Most Common Irrationalities.”

Studies by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists strongly suggest that there is no such thing as a “cool headed reasoner.” Decision making is an inextricable combination of the brains’ executive functioning together with emotional processing. Reason and emotion cannot be separated, and “people cannot be separated from the problem,” as some writers have suggested. A variety of irrationalities are to be expected from people in most conflicts, all of which undermine the presumptions of rational decision making and strongly influence the most negotiations. They include, among others, attribution errors, excessive risk taking, over confidence, reactive devaluation, selective memory, heightened fear of loss, and the fear of being played for a fool.


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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