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I Would Never Do That!

by Phyllis Pollack
May 2009

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack

       I read an article in the Science Section of the New York Times on Tuesday, May 5, 2009 that made a lot of sense to me. Written by Benedict Carey, “Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness” discusses the “holier-than-thou” effect. As social psychologists define it, this effect occurs when “. . .people tend to be overly optimistic about their own abilities and fortunes – to overestimate their standing in class, their discipline, their sincerity.” (Id.) Thus, for example, in a mediation, a party might strongly condemn the other side, exclaiming that they, themselves, would never do that (!), or they would never take advantage of the other person the way defendant did of them, or what the defendant did to them was not “right”, or “moral” – or was “shady”, “despicable” and so forth.

       According to the social psychologists, this self-inflated bias that we all have (this blogger included) “. . . may be even stronger when it comes to moral judgment, and it can greatly influence how people judge others’ actions, and ultimately their own.” (Id.) Further, the author notes that culture, religion and experience also impact or effect our sense of moral standing in relation to others.     

       But, what the researchers are also finding is that much of our behavior is situational. How we behave is governed far more by the situation than by our personality alone. That is, when confronted with a particular situation, we do not always live up to our “virtuous self-image.”

       This was demonstrated in one study involving 251 Cornell students. First, they were asked “. . . how likely they would be to buy a daffodil” at an upcoming campus event to benefit the American Cancer Society at which daffodils would be sold. At that time, “83% predicted that they would buy at least one flower but that just 56% of their peers would.” (Id.)

       Then, several weeks later, during the event, “the researchers found that only 43% of the same students actually bought the daffodil.” (Id.):

      “. . .In other experiments, researchers have found that people similarly overestimate their willingness to do what is morally right, whether to give to charity, vote or cooperate with a stranger. In the end, their less generous prediction about peers’ behavior tend to be dead-on accurate. . . .” (Id.)

       In sum, as explained by Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, ““ The gap between how I think I’ll behave and how I actually behave is a function of how well I simulate the situation, and our simulations are guided by our intentions.” (Id.)

       Not surprisingly, this self-inflating bias “. . . diminishes quickly when people have actually had the experience they are judging.” (Id.) They are not so quick to “judge” or to take the moral high ground when they have been in that same predicament themselves. They are more understanding and much less critical.

       Finally, the researchers found that religion plays a role here in that it may, but not always, temper this self-inflating bias. While most religions advocate humility, at the same time, some people feel religion empowers them with moral ammunition. Some highly religious groups feel “more blessed” and thus much more moral than everyone else.

       Another name for this effect is the “Lake Wobegon effect.”  As explained in The Science of Settlement by Barry Goldman MA, JD (ALI-ABA 2007), each of us has a “. . .tendency to exaggerate our virtues and abilities relative to others” or as Garrison Keillor describes the residents of Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” (Id. at 14). In essence, each of us will rank ourselves high in qualities we value! (Id.)

       So, what does this have to do with negotiation and mediation? A lot! Because of this self-inflating bias, or Lake Wobegon effect, a party will “tend to skew [her] case evaluations upward.” (Id. at 15). The party will have unrealistic expectations of the outcome and be overly optimistic about how “good” the result should be. As noted by Mr. Carey in his article, the best way to bring these people down to earth is to delve gently into their past to see if they have had a similar experience. If so, this may help diminish their bias to be extremely moralistic. If they have not had such a similar experience, invoke humility. Being humble never hurts and will go a long way towards resolving a dispute.

       . . . Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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