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The Psychology and Neurobiology of Mediation

NOTE: The following article is a summary of some of the points made in Elizabeth Bader’s recent article, The Psychology and Neurobiology of Mediation, 17(2) Cardozo J. Conflict Resol. 363 ( Winter 2016) .  For a more detailed discussion of the issues discussed here, and other issues related to the psychology of mediation, please see the Cardozo article.

From a psychological perspective, the most important problem in mediation is that people take the conflict personally and the outcome of the mediation as a reflection of who they are.  This makes compromise difficult, if not impossible.

However, learning to let go of this identification of the self with outcome — with “face” or “ego” issues – is difficult for most people.  It often requires the development of a new level of both psychological and spiritual maturity.

The IDR Cycle Described

I have written in depth about the IDR cycle previously, both here on and in my other articles. (See references below.)  This is a brief summary.

Initially in mediation, parties present with a level of ego-inflation, which manifests as overconfidence.  In the well-documented phenomena of overconfidence, people are unrealistically overconfident about the results they can achieve.  As I have pointed out previously, on a psychological level, they are also overconfident about and invested in their own power to force settlement on their own terms.

As the mediation process unfolds, and the other side’s position comes to light, there is deflation and disappointment. Anger and outrage at the perceived personal affront also often occur.

Impasse may occur at this stage.  Our challenge as mediators  during this stage is to let go of our own investments in a “successful” mediation.

Finally, if the mediation is successful, there is realistic resolution. The parties adopt a more realistic view both of the conflict and of themselves, and settle the dispute.

In spiritual terms, this stage, realistic resolution, denotes both the conclusion of the IDR cycle and the appearance of a form of successful and necessary humility in the midst of conflict.

The Neurobiology of the IDR Cycle

My current work relates the IDR cycle to neurobiology.  From a neurobiological perspective, the distinctive feature of mediation is that parties in mediation experience both threat and safety in real time and at the same time. The IDR cycle occurs as the reaction to threat is neutralized during mediation.

Initially, the sympathetic nervous system, the branch of the nervous system that produces the fight-or-flight response, is aroused as parties prepare to confront and actually confront and negotiate with their adversaries.  I believe this is what causes inflation/overconfidence: it is the psychological correlate of the impulse to fight/flight.

Deflation occurs when, through contact with the mediator and the mediation, the sympathetic nervous system is soothed and calmed by what neurobiologist Stephen Porges has called the “social engagement system.” The social engagement system is the part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which, rooted in the vagus nerve, fosters and monitors social interaction.

Impasse may occur at this time.  The neurobiology teaches us that small, unthreatening steps — coupled with a clear deadline —  is often the best way to work through impasse.

Realistic resolution occurs as parties’ fighting and self-protective impulses are managed and controlled through social engagement and interaction with the mediator. At this point, higher brain functions are able to engage and exert control. Parties become more able to think clearly, and thus to reach the final stage, realistic resolution.  This corresponds with the development of humility and maturity within a real life difficult situation.  This is the story of the “magic” of mediation.


The analysis in this article is based on the work of Stephen Porges and Peter Levine, leaders in the field of neurobiology of trauma. Recent findings in cognitive neuroscience are also discussed.  Some of the references include:

Elizabeth E. Bader, The  Psychology and Neurobiology of Mediation, 17 Cardozo J. Conflict Resol. 363 (2015-2016).

Elizabeth Bader, The Psychology of Mediation, Part I: The Mediator’s Issues of Self and Identity,

Elizabeth E. Bader, The Psychology of Mediation II, The IDR Cycle, A New Model for Understanding Mediation,

Elizabeth E. Bader, The Psychology of Mediation: Issues of Self And Identity And The IDR Cycle, 10 Pepp. Disp. Resol. L.J. 183 (2010).

Elizabeth E. Bader, Self, Identity and The IDR Cycle: Understanding The Deeper Meaning of “Face” In Mediation, 8 Int’l J. Applied Psychoanalytic Stud. 301 (2011).

Jennifer S. Beer, Exaggerated Positivity In Self-Evaluation: A Social Neuroscience Approach To Reconciling The Role of Self-Esteem Protection and Cognitive Bias, 8 Soc. Pers. Psychol. Compass 583 (2014).

Jim Blascovich & Wendy Berry Mendes, Social Psychology and Embodiment, In Handbook of Social Psychology 195, 207–08 (Susan T. Fiske, Daniel T. Gilbert, Gardner Lindzey Eds. 5th Ed. 2010).

Jim Blascovich et al., Social “Facilitation” As Challenge and Threat, 77 J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 68 (1999).

Shari M. Geller & Stephen W. Porges, Therapeutic Presence: Neurophysiological Mechanisms Mediating Feeling Safe In Therapeutic Relationships, 24 J. Psychotherapy Integration 178 (2014).

Virginia S. Y. Kwan et al., Assessing The Neural Correlates of Self-Enhancement Bias: A Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Study, 182 Exp. Brain. Res. 379 (2007)

Peter A. Levine, In An Unspoken Voice: How The Body Releases Trauma And Restores Goodness (North Atlantic Books 2010).

Stephen Porges, The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation (W. W. Norton & Company 2011)

Candace M. Raio et al., Cognitive Emotion Regulation Fails the Stress Test, 110 Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 15139 (2013).

Shelly E. Taylor et al., Biobehavioral Responses To Stress In Females: Tend-And-Befriend, Not Fight-Or-Flight, 107 Psychol. Rev. 411 (2000).


Elizabeth Bader

A lawyer, mediator, conflict resolution coach and teacher, Elizabeth Bader holds a certificate awarded after more than 200 hours of training on trauma. She attempts to reduce the stress parties in conflict experience by emphasizing respect and compassion but also realism and objectivity.  Elizabeth has successfully mediated a variety of cases,… MORE >

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