and why people disagree, fight, kill, and how that might be altered,
that might open the door to some major-league research, but I
don’t think we’re there yet. That’s just a possibility
But, I don’t see the field breaking loose using the same tools and
the same categories and vocabulary we’ve used for 40 years. I
think there’s going to have to be some kind of breakthrough in
brain science, which seems to be as plausible a path as any.
ACR: Much of our field is codified in a series of non-scholarly
books. Any mediator who’s been in the field for a while has a couple
of shelves of such works. How would you assess the “canon,” the
classics we’ve all read?
DEM: They are categorically a combination of descriptive –
“What I do” – and hortatory – “That which we ought to do.” But
there’s a very great shortfall in analyzing what’s really going on
out there; that is, empirical research. Now I acknowledge that
such research is very hard to do – I’m not faulting the researchers so much as saying we haven’t even begun to dig into how
difficult this research ought to be to get good answers.
Most of what we write comes under the heading of “here’s
how you do it right because this is what good people do.” There’s
an overarching theme of virtue, either explicit or implicit about
how good people would act. There’s very little about the intrinsic barriers and problems that occur when people negotiate,
things that our field ought to be accounting for. There’s some,
coming out of the work of people like Kahneman and Tversky,
that’s produced a flood of research which is very intriguing, but
it hasn’t given rise to much information as to what we do about
these psychological barriers. The advice largely consists of
saying you’ve got to be aware, and suggesting some tricks for
making sure you’re aware. That’s good, but it’s limited.
I would lobby for a different kind of literature, which would study
the way people negotiate in life, rather than using role playing, or
testing paid student subjects. Those studies have some value,
but they are simplistic. Any real negotiation is enormously complicated, in some sense almost limitlessly so. We need to look
from the practice backward –what were they doing? Why? What
were the limits, the blind spots, when did they get in trouble? Neither our research nor our textbooks give adequate respect to
the real process of negotiating.
ACR: So maybe we should videotape many mediations
or negotiations, ones in which practitioners specifically adhered
to different methodologies?
DEM: I think that would be a very good step. I’d suggest two
or three further steps. I wouldn’t spend any time at all on party
satisfaction, which is nearly irrelevant for anything except
marketing, and is in some ways very misleading. I’d look at the
percentage and durability of agreements. You’d have to have
the observers agree that the mediators were actually using
the methodology they claim to use. I would take a guess that
if it was really rigorous, with no favoring of one methodology
over another, you would wind up with all of them working about
the same. That’s a guess that the differences among what we
really do, and not what we say we do, are much smaller than we
claim they are.
ACR: What might we find works across the field and despite the
schools of thought?
DEM: Our technique differences are much less important than
things like paying attention, being there, being helpful in attitude,
not technique, and being responsive to what the parties say. If
the parties are having trouble communicating, the intervener
responds to that, and if they’re simply having trouble chemically,
the intervener responds to that. But that’s me guessing.
But it’s important that we find a way to get at what all parties
were thinking, why they did something, what were they thinking when they did it. But you can’t get that from observation,
and interviewing is a very weak tool, because in the common
way of things, people don’t remember what they were thinking.
Besides, customarily we find that in the way of consciousness,
often people aren’t actually thinking. But if you’re subtle at it you
may be able to open up the reasoning process.
ACR: Is the research on mental barriers more easily used by
manipulators like advertisers than by those trying to remove barriers?
DEM: Marketers are seeking to influence large numbers of
people, so they focus on broad figures. But research on errors like
anchoring has a remarkable pattern – a majority makes the error,
but we don’t follow the people who don’t fall into the thinking trap.
I’ve never found a reference in Kahneman to what the minority did
to not fall into the traps. There’s a lot to learn from the crowd that
doesn’t fall into the trap. How do we help more people do whatever it is the independent thinkers do?
ACR: Are there examples of research, maybe outside our field,
which suggest paths for future work in conflict resolution?
DEM: I can think of several. Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion covers some of this territory, and has
the advantage of using real life situations, not volunteers or
laboratory settings. Kathryn Schulz’s, Being Wrong is another
Then there’s Russell Leng’s, Interstate Crisis Behavior 1816-
1980, a work of history that points in the direction of really good
research. It’s written brilliantly, but it’s a very dense academic
study. It’s beautiful. He analyzes 40 past conflicts according to
several criteria. He’s looking for the relative effectiveness of the
realist school that favors brute force and the psychological school
that says you have to take account of communication, attitudes
toward escalation and so forth. He studies basically which ones go
to war and which don’t. A crisis is a situation in which all hell could
break loose – the North Korean situation is a perfect one right now.
He gets closer to saying something really important about what
works in our field and what doesn’t, and he’s wonderful at telling us
what’s wrong with his methodology and what problems he doesn’t
solve. A human, humble guy who’s making real headway in making
something that’s scientifically replicable.