Specifically, it’s about how brains react to rewards (like a big bag of Halloween candy), and how this response can be mediated (pun intended) by a person’s environment.

When I sat down to write this post, I was ready to talk about how emotions take over the rational brain, and turn people into zombies — rendered incapable of making decisions. As I dug a little deeper, however, I discovered there was little-to-no science to back this up. It seems that current thinking on the subject militates towards the idea that there is no such thing as a purely “rational” decision [i.e. all decisions are based on emotion], and that we haven’t the foggiest how to measure what a rational decision is in the first place. In fact, one study of persons with damaged emotion centres in their brains found that inability to process emotional information did not improve decision-making. Instead, the participants had trouble making decisions at all.

As such, I am going to talk about a much more scientifically-validated field of study which approaches, mutatis mutandis, the same problem. I’m going to talk about a party’s ability to wait to get something they want more, instead of taking something now that they want less.

Delaying Gratification

A long-term orientation in decision-making is generally referred to by psychologists as the ability to “delay gratification.” What is important about the ability to delay gratification for our purposes, and what I will explore further in this post, is the link between environmental variables and parties’ ability to delay gratification (or not). We are, after all, the masters of the mediation environment.

In the early 1970s, psychologists at Stanford University conducted an actual, honest-to-goodness scientific study, dubbed the “Marshmallow Experiment.”  They told young children that they could either choose to eat a treat now (eg. a marshmallow), or wait and get something better (usually an extra treat, so they would get, for example, two marshmallows instead of one).

(As it happens, there is some quite entertaining YouTube footage of this particular experiment)

Subsequent studies found that when the children were distracted from the first treat, they were more likely to be able resist the temptation of eating it and make it to their second, better treat. Thinking “sad thoughts,” and thinking about the rewards themselves made the children less likely to be able to wait, while thinking about “fun things” served as ideal distractors and created an increased ability to delay gratification. It has also been found that the more likely the later reward was, the more likely the party was to hold out for it.

Studies also tell us that the ability to delay gratification improves with age, it isn’t a uniquely human characteristic, and that the ability to delay gratification is an indicator of various life skills and even body mass index.

So What?

As mediators, we have to juggle enormous complexity during the course of a mediation: the power dynamics amongst the parties, the objective and subjective dynamics of the negotiation, the issues, the bargaining power of each party, each party’s position (as it changes), and more. To deal with these dynamic challenges, we also have a huge array of tools to help parties reach an agreement: reality-checking, setting the agenda, checking-in, re-framing, coaching parties, caucusing, and so on.

Settlement, to analogize to the studies above, is almost certainly the first marshmallow. When they hold out and don’t settle, parties tend to think that they can do better if they wait, rather than take what’s in front of them. Not only can it be useful to recognize that some parties are simply better at delaying gratification than others, but also the idea that certain conditions foster or suppress this ability may be useful.

I can’t claim to fully grasp all of the implications between these studies and mediation. I do think that it is interesting that, as discussed above, science tells us a reduction in certainty about a future reward can create impetus to take what’s available in the short-term, and that this is essentially how reality-checking works. It is also interesting to me that simply placing a settlement proposal (marshmallow) in front of a party may make them more likely to settle.

Similarly, we know that a distraction from an immediate reward will help delay gratification. It is interesting to contemplate that one of the effects of controlling the agenda, and helping parties focus on salient issues might simply be a removal of distraction. In the same vein, I imagine that many of us have had the experience where a moment of silence actually created the breakthrough that got parties moving together. It is fascinating to me that one of the mechanisms through which this works might simply be by reducing the level of distraction in the conversation.

The last thing that struck me as I wrote this is the certainty with which I embraced the notion that emotion over-rode rationality. Our social contexts are so powerful, that they continuously affect the reality in which we live. Certainly, parties struggle with this same issue during mediations (vis-à-vis confirmation bias, among others), and it is our job as mediators to help them see things from a different perspective.

Brandon Hastings

Brandon Hastings is a lawyer and Civil Roster mediator.  He is working with the CLE Share the Land Conference Co-Chairs to create both a graphic representations of the interconnections of the BC mediation community and an audio-video study of diversity on BC’s mediator rosters.




Photo credit: Sharon Sutherland.