Find Mediators Near You:

Primed for Resolution

It’s always a good feeling when science tells us we were right all along.  We conflict resolution professionals have always maintained that it matters what words we use to communicate or how the room is arranged.   But the weight and temperature of objects we hold in our hands?  Scientists are finding that words and objects around us influence our choices, motivations, and goals in ways that may raise your eyebrows as they did mine.   In this article, we will explore the new research on how environmental stimuli can unconsciously influence our thoughts and choices, and ways to use this knowledge to the benefit of our work.

So what is “priming,” and how does it work?  Over recent decades, scientists have been able to unconsciously activate or “prime” attitudes and concepts such as aggression, cooperation or loyalty.  They do this by exposing individuals to relevant external stimulus–usually a word or object that can be invisible (a microsecond flash on a computer screen) or perfectly obvious (words related to “cooperate” scattered throughout a “sentence scramble” exercise).   The key is that the effect of these stimuli takes place entirely outside of our awareness or conscious intent. 

How can this be?  Making Freud’s theories look conservative, a growing number of social scientists today think that most of our behavior is guided by our own intelligent unconscious mental system.  In it we store accumulated knowledge about the world, organized into categories they call mental structures.  We might think we make conscious, reasoned decisions, but we actually evaluate events quickly and automatically by evoking what we quickly select as the most relevant stored mental structures and using them to interpret the present encounter.  Although scientific understanding of these concepts are under constant development, for our purposes we might compare the priming and activation of unconscious mental structures to the colloquial meaning of the term “priming,” such as giving tax refunds to jumpstart the economy, or pouring water into an old pipe to force out air and resume water flow.  A single intervention unleashes a dormant capacity.

Thus, when experiment participants were asked to think about the lowest and highest fair prices before negotiating for a car (i.e., a “fairness” prime), they made conciliatory moves more quickly, were happier with the results and reached agreement in half the time compared to others. Moreover, the “fairness” primed participants were more interested in negotiating with their seller again. Similarly, group members primed with the words dependable, helpful, share and support were more cooperative within their group than others, even to their individual economic detriment.  College students primed with the word rudeness interrupted a subsequent conversation more quickly than others.  And you’ll never forget what Australian researchers did in public toilets:  they put signs above urinals and inside bathroom doors to prime “honesty” (see figure 1 for the actual sign used–a mirror image of the word “honest”), then watched several thousand users to see how many would pay a requested usage fee of 30 (euro) cents. Though everyone was rather stingy, the honesty–primed users did pay over a third more (average 3.664 cents) than those primed with a nonsensical word (average 2.694 cents).

So, can environmental cues transform deeply entrenched adversaries into flexible, warm cooperators?  To answer this question, I talked with the field’s leading researcher, Yale Professor John Bargh.  Bargh suspects that positive primes may not be sufficient to dislodge a disputant’s entrenched negative assessments of one they have known over time.  He suggests harnessing the human impulse to have empathy for and feel bonded to those with whom they act in synchrony, and to cooperate against a common enemy.  Individuals who perform ritual action together, such as march in unison, will tend to feel increased group belonging and behave more cooperatively.  American participants who listened to and mouthed the words of the rhythmic “O Canada” anthem together showed increased feelings of being “part of the group,” and made consistently cooperative decisions in an economic game.   Having a common enemy impelled cohesion among diverse New Yorkers after  9/11. 

By now, it is obvious that this knowledge may raise a dilemma for dispute resolution professionals. Should we attempt to influence our clients outside of their awareness?  If we do, are we interfering with our clients’ self-determination?   Are we appropriate judges of what stimulus is good for them?  Of course we do influence our clients through our process choices, framing of issues, suggestions and opinions.   The value of understanding research on the non-conscious activation of mental processes is that we are influencing our clients by the wall art in our mediation rooms, the words we habitually use and the objects to which we expose them.  With knowledge, we can avoid unwittingly exacerbating our clients’ conflicts.  With knowledge, we can better support their goals in ways such as the following:   

  • Objects.  Survey the environment in which you are mediating.  Avoid pictures or objects that denote fighting, imbalance, hardness, roughness, coldness.  Favor items that connote balance, cooperation, unison of movement or rhythm, warmness, softness.  Decide whether the “hard” associations of a wood chairs in business conference room are helpful or not.  For example, courthouse rooms could signal fairness and honesty, but also all-or-nothing judgments.  Consider fostering warmth in the room–serve hot beverages and avoid a very cold room temperatures.
  • Words.  When talking, listening and reframing, use words that are associated with the motivations you wish to encourage.   Review the words in your Agreement to Mediate and in your introductory remarks.   For example, you might use words such as fairness, balance, generosity, cooperate, honest, parity or in synch. Consider minimizing use of divisive, competitive or “cold” words such as litigation, side, defendant, win, tough.   “Thank you all for cooperating with an early start time;” “I appreciate your honest effort;”  “Mediation provides an opportunity for a fair resolution.”
  • Synchrony: Look for opportunities to engage the parties in a common goal (solving a practical problem with the room or getting lunch) or to act in synchrony.
                        author

Jane Juliano

Jane Juliano, JD, MTS, MPA, is currently an associate researcher with the  Associate, Initiative on Religion and International Affairs, at Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University). She is conducting empirical research on how religious values influence negotiation behavior.  She mediates and facilitates conflicts nationwide. MORE >

Featured Members

ad
View all

Read these next

Category

[PODCAST] The Role of ADR in Resolving IP Disputes in the Life Sciences Industry

In this podcast, Steven Bauer, mediator and arbitrator at JAMS, and Sarah Geers, partner at the global law firm Jones Day, discuss the types of intellectual property disputes they are...

By Steven Bauer
Category

Student Mediators Step in When Trouble Brews

SANTA FE, N.M. (ANS) -- Rumor, gossip or a dirty look may be all that's needed to provoke a physical confrontation in school, said eighth-grader Amy Ortiz, but the practice...

By American News Service
Category

International Mediation Developments

The cost of mediation may be recovered as part of litigation costs if a party does not follow the spirit or letter of the pre-action protocol in the U.K.  Boyesturner.com...

By Keith Seat
×