Is Your Clients' Conflict Water, Ice, or Vapor? Insights from the Science of Complexity

by Stephanie West Allen
February 2013

Neuroscience and Conflict Resolution Blog by Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen

Reading the Executive Summary of a presentation that will be given this week in Davos* reminded me of some of the problems with the use of neuroscience in conflict resolution: reductionism, for example. And reminded me that mediators should be paying as much (maybe more) attention to complexity as they are to neuroscience. Why, you may ask? Take a few minutes to read these well-written, easily-understood 7 pages titled "Perspectives on a Hyperconnected World: Insights from the Science of Complexity" and I think you will understand.

Taking just one example, that of reductionism, here's an excerpt from those 7 pages:
Most present-day leaders have been trained to assume that the world behaves according to simple rules. This mindset reduces complex facts, entities, phenomena, or structures to some simple notion. Reductionism totally ignores the phenomenon of emergence, i.e. the fact that the whole has properties that cannot be reduced to the properties of the parts. As complexity scientist John Holland notes, "For the last 400 years science has advanced by reductionism. The idea is that you could understand the world, all of nature, by examining smaller and smaller pieces of it. When assembled, the small pieces would explain the whole".

Reductionism and water

Water has the property of being liquid, but none of the molecules out of which water is constituted has this property. Liquidity is determined by the way the water molecules interact and the patterns resulting from this. These patterns are different for ice and for vapor.

Can you think of any examples where reductionism has been applied to the neuroscience of conflict resolution? Or even to mediation without the brain science? Where a conflict is treated as if it is ice or water when it is probably in fact vapor? I can.

*The presentation this week at the World Economic Forum will be given by Geoffrey West and Laszlo Barabasi, co-chairs of the committee that prepared the report. The whole committee is listed on page 8 here. Click to read my interview of Irene Sanders, one of the committee members. See also this post.


Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive with Center co-founder Gary Friedman. She has been a mediator for over two and one-half decades.

She is the author of Triversity Fantasy — Seven Keys To Unlock Prejudice, Creating Your Own Funeral or Memorial Service: A Workbook and many articles on workplace and professional issues for such publications as Lawyer Hiring and Training Report, Colorado Nurse, The Complete Lawyer, National Law Journal, Of Counsel, Law Practice and Denver Business Journal.

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