Often, in mediation, I suggest to a party that she look at the issue from the viewpoint of her adversary, i.e., the person sitting in the other room. I do this in an effort to have that party become more open in finding a solution to the dispute; to realize that the “story” or narrative has many sides to it.
Well, I just read a blog post published by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School about a study that indicates this may not be such a great idea or such a useful tool in my mediation toolbox. Evidently, researchers Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Eugene Caruso and Max Bazerman of Harvard University ran some experiments in which they asked the participants to determine what would be a fair division of a scarce resource:
“Half of the subjects (the “self-focused” condition) were asked how much would be fair for them to take. The other subjects (the “other-focused” condition) were asked to think about what would be fair for others to take and then write down how much would be fair for each party (not just themselves) to take. “ (Id.)
As one might surmise, those in the self-focused or first group thought it would be fair for them to take more of the scare resource while those focusing on others were willing to take less. This result is what one would expect and “…has positive implications for the negotiation process.” (Id.)
But, then the researchers conducted one more experiment to determine what the participants actually do in contrast to what they say they do. In this further experiment, the researchers asked the participants to allocate in a most fair manner the number of high quality chocolate chips for use in a cookie baking contest. Those in the “other-focus” group reported that “fairness” required that they each take fewer chips than the “self-focused” group. However, in reality, the“other-focused” group actually took more chips than the ‘self-focused” group.
Why? “The researchers discovered that when we consider other people’s perspectives, we expect them to behave selfishly, which could cause us to counter by behaving more selfishly ourselves.” (Id.)
Consequently, while it may be useful to have someone view an issue from another’s perspective, in reality, this may prove to be a difficult task and one that backfires. Depending on that person’s cognitive biases (e.g., fundamental attribution error), such a request may lead to impasse rather than a solution.
by Phyllis G. Pollack