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What We Think We Know Can Hurt Our Negotiating Position

I watched the debate last night with people who support my candidate.  They all also happened to be mediators, so they understand concepts like confirmation bias –the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoids information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs. It is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference, or as a form of selection bias toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study or disconfirmation of an alternative hypothesis.

I’ve been Twittering (shoot me! this is addictive behavior).  But all behavior has it’s “up” side.  The “up” side to following my Twitter network’s running real-time commentary of the debate was the exposure of my own (and my friends’) confirmation bias.  I have both McCain and Obama supporters in my network and it was as if the two groups were watching entirely different debates.  And they were.

Because nothing is objective.  Let me repeat that.  Nothing is objective.  Everything we hear, see, touch, smell and taste is filtered through our entirely personal experiences, the collective or “received” reality of the society (micro or macro) in which we live, and interpreted based upon those experiences, which are further complicated by universal cognitive biases and particular core beliefs (our “operating principles”).

If nothing is objective, there is no truth beyond that which one has faith in. (“faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”)

Yes, I know, the scientific method.  But you and I don’t test our beliefs, opinions, perceptions and conceptions by the scientific method.  We hear, we see, we smell, we taste, we touch and we respond.  We opine.  We believe we are right.

So I said to my friends in the middle of the debate, “we’re an example of “confirmation bias” and they took issue with me. And I let it go because I wanted to listen more than to impose my own view of our collective experience.  And I was Twittering, lord help me, with some people who didn’t share my bias.

I missed statements made by McCain entirely.  It was if I hadn’t even heard them.  I was listening to confirm that which I already believed, which means I screened out what didn’t fit my view of McCain or Obama and highlighted those statements that confirmed my existing beliefs.

This is what happens every time you try a case to a jury.  It’s why the little “g” god of the market place created jury consultants.  It is also what happens every time you try to settle litigation.  Litigation raises confirmation bias to holy writ.  Which is why the little “g” god of the market place created mediators.  Why?  Because the client has filtered his opening story through his own subjective experiences, which we, the litigators, devote ourselves to proving by cherry-picking the facts that conform to those experiences and disputing all those that don’t.  By the time the parties and their counsel get to me, they’re often in different galaxies.  And I need to help them remember, or realize for the first time, that their opponent has woven the disparate facts of “what happened” into an entirely different story, and has done so without “lying” about those events.  Just as importantly, the parties come to understand that a  jury might well “buy” their opponents tale as the “right” one.

Here’s the more important point to getting a better deal:   your opponent is often nearly as interested in your acknowledgement that his version of the events might be as accurate as yours as he is in  “winning” the case.  When (or if) the parties clear this hurdle, they can get down to serious horse trading, benefitting both.

So, forget the pundits.  If you believe your guy “won” last night, it’s probably equal parts a measured opinion and a peculiarly subjective experience, one that you do not even know you’ve tailored to fit your own view of reality.

I like Obama because I believe he acknowledges this from time to time.  Not always.  But often enough to make me feel comfortable with him in a White House.  Am I right?  How could I possibly be?  We won’t know anything until one of these men moves from campaigning to governing.

Lord help us all.

                        author

Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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