Good brain, bad brain? Bring it all to the negotiation table

From Stephanie Allen West’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution .

We are hearing much lately about the wise parts of the brain as well as the unruly. Truth be told this division into camps in the cranium is simplistic. David Brooks described part of the simplistic approach in his New York Times column “The Vulcan Utopia” (subscription required) in which he reviews Al Gore’s book The Assault on Reason. Brooks wrote . . .

Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.

The reality, of course, is that there is no neat distinction between the “higher” and “lower” parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the “rational” mind and the “visceral” body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops  . . .  .

Without emotions like fear, the “logical” mind can’t reach conclusions. On the other hand, many of the most vicious, genocidal acts are committed by people who are emotionally numb, not passionately out of control.

Anger is another emotion which can be very useful in the reaching of conclusions and yet anger is often maligned. Although certainly not in every instance, anger can improve our
ability to make rational decisions and that often fiery emotion can
assist in the rational evaluation of another person’s position. Conflict precipitating anger can sometimes facilitate resolution.

In “Thinking straight while seeing red: The influence of anger on information processing,”
[available at no charge for a limited time] researchers discussed the
impact of anger on decision-making and thinking. The article was summarized by Medical News Today. An excerpt from the summary  . . .

Anger is that powerful internal force that blows out the light of reason. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Anger is appropriately blamed for flawed thinking since it tends
to alter perception of risk, increase prejudice, and trigger
aggression. But is anger always destructive? Three recent experiments
published in the latest issue of Personality and Social Psychology
Bulletin, an official publication of The Society for Personality and
Social Psychology suggest that it is not. Anger can actually prompt
more careful and rational analysis of another person’s reasoning.

Anger is sometimes destructive and sometimes helpful; its value is variable. Wouldn’t it be easier to have a list of the emotions and brain parts that are invited to the negotiation? Yes.

it would make life (and conflict resolution) easier if we could draw
simple conclusions about the brain’s anatomy and about individual
emotions, doing so is at best puerile and at worst dangerous. One of
many reasons that an oversimplified, single-component focus is
misleading is that the  brain part or the emotion does not exist in
isolation. We can only get so far by studying the tuba if want to
understand the symphony.

May we learn about conflict resolution by having a better
understanding of the brain? Absolutely! Neuroscience holds many, many
gems. But one of our watchwords will be restraint. We don’t want to
contribute to the growing neuro-fiddle-faddle.


Stephanie West Allen

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… MORE >

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