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Principles of Cognitive Dissonance at Play in Mediation

Psychologists tell us that humans prize harmony between their actions and beliefs. Accordingly, when we act contrary to a strong belief, alarm bells go off in the brain, and we feel mental discomfort, or “dissonance.” To eliminate this tension, we can either abandon the belief or change the behavior.

To illustrate, a smoker may subconsciously feel torn between a behavior (smoking) and a belief (smoking causes lung cancer). The smoker can easily eliminate this discomfort by quitting smoking. But as psychologist Saul McLeod explains, it is often very difficult for people to abandon longstanding behaviors that give them pleasure (such as smoking). Therefore, to eliminate the tension, many such individuals are likely to change their belief (e.g., by arguing that the evidence linking smoking to cancer is biased or flawed). To the extent, however, that the cost to a person of modifying his beliefs instead of changing his behavior rises (e.g., a persistent cough), the person may elect to change his conduct to avoid that cost (even while sticking to the false belief).

Another phenomenon explained by cognitive dissonance is the positive spin we place on the outcome of efforts in which we have invested a substantial amount of time and/or money. As McLeod explains:

It also seems to be the case that we value most highly those goals or items which have required considerable effort to achieve. This is probably because dissonance would be caused if we spent a great effort to achieve something and then evaluated it negatively.

Thus, if we invest substantial time into a project that turns out badly (objectively speaking), then in order to avoid the “dissonance” that would result from conceding that we wasted our time, we might insist that the result was actually not that bad; to the contrary, we achieved something worthwhile. Alternatively, we could try to convince ourselves that the effort itself was enjoyable irrespective of the outcome, or we actually didn’t spend that much time.

McLeod observes that part of the phenomenon at play here are the inevitable tradeoffs posed by making a choice. That is, when forced to choose between two alternatives (A vs. B) that each have pros and cons, the act of choosing A cuts us off (at least temporarily) from the possibility of enjoying the advantages of B, while also forcing us to accept the disadvantages of A. We eliminate this dissonance by devaluing B, and praising A (because our brain asks, why would you choose A if B was the better choice?). This is precisely why people find that change is so hard (it devalues a prior choice).

How do these principles apply in mediation?

As noted above, a person who has invested a substantial amount of time and money into a particular choice tends to overvalue that choice. This means that parties who have already invested substantial time and money litigating with an adversary may find it difficult psychologically to accept the weaknesses of their own case, and/or the strengths of their opponent’s positions (because, the brain asks, is it rationale to continue investing time and money into a losing cause?). Litigants also tend to demonize the other side, whether characterizing their opponents as a bunch of liars, crooks or some other negative characterization (because, the brain asks, why would you spend money fighting a nice person with integrity).

As also noted, however, to the extent a person’s perception of the cost of certain beliefs rises, that person may decide to change their conduct in spite of their contradictory beliefs (e.g., quit smoking even if the smoker still thinks evidence of the harm from smoking is flawed). This indicates that, beyond evaluating a party’s positions, a mediator should also identify or elicit through dialogue all of the negatives of prolonging the litigation (e.g., the money, the stress, the distraction), and all of the positives from a speedy resolution of the dispute through mediation (such as the opportunity to allocate money being spent on litigation towards more promising investments, or to repair a broken relationship with the adversary). By changing participants’ perception of the cost/benefit of their different alternatives (continue litigating vs. compromising), a mediator can provide parties with strong external justifications to compromise even if they remain reluctant to change their view of their positions.

Yet, it is also possible to use cognitive dissonance to change a party’s internal views about the merits of a dispute because the theory teaches that when a person is persuaded to do or say something contrary to a strongly held opinion, the opinion tends to soften to align it more closely with the deed or statement. An application of this phenomenon is the “Ben Franklin effect,” which maintains that performing a favor for someone you dislike increases your positive feelings towards that person (because, your brain asks, why would you do a favor for someone you dislike?). As Franklin wrote in his autobiography concerning how he turned a rival legislator into a friend:

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

These findings suggest the utility of certain mediation techniques. For example, encouraging role play in which a party, if only briefly, steps into the shoes of an adversary and tries to articulate their perspective, can soften that party’s opposition to their adversary’s positions. We have previously discussed encouraging empathy in mediation.

Similarly, in a joint session, establishing ground rules that require listening to the other side’s presentation without interruption facilitates goodwill (of course, if reciprocated by the other side). Indeed, every small concession, favor or other accommodation a mediator can persuade one party to offer the other during the mediation will create positive momentum towards resolution due to the “Ben Franklin” effect.

I invite readers interested in the psychological aspects of mediation to share their insights and experiences.

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