On Becoming a Rationally Irrational Negotiator/Mediator: The ‘Messy’ Human Brain and the ‘Myth of Rationality’ – Part 1 of 5: The Irrationality of Being Too Rational

Links to the entire series

Part 1 of 5
Part 2 of 5

Part 1 of 5.   The Irrationality of Being Too Rational

“…consciousness (is) a form of comedy close to tragedy and logic (is) a crime, its perpetrators to be punished by offering them infinite numbers of absurd logical conclusions.”        – Samuel Beckett

Most people—especially professionals—like to think of themselves as reasonable and rational actors, not prone to illogic or emotional displays. In the current discussions of health care reform, perhaps more accurately described as arguments, harangues and ‘shoutings,’ many people lament the absence of civil dialogue. Yet, the truth be known, humans are seldom as rational as they presume or pretend to be and this is not just in high profile policy matters such as health care, where personal values and political ideologies collide. The progression of discussion of this issue is not dissimilar from most personal, community, or business disputes, be it a divorce, will dispute, personal injury, or workplace grievance matter. The recognition of this reality has been long recognized by experienced practitioners and recently confirmed in recent years in the neuro-scientific studies of brain functioning and by cognitive psychologists. Curiously, however, our practice models, styles, theory, teaching and training remain like Siamese Twins, inseparable from outdated rationalist and linear notions of decision making which are insufficient to appreciate the complexity of how both people and professionals manage the frustration and stress of conflict.

Virtually every dispute has an emotional/ ‘irrational’ component; almost never is a dispute just a question of money.  Most disputes begin in rancor and animosity with those involved assuming positional stances that discourage negotiation.  While many will likely back into in-artful, and sometimes barely tolerable settlement, that typically only occurs after the players have exhausted themselves, attacked and attributed to each other the worst of motives,  and ‘negotiated’ by issuing ultimatums that only serve to entrench the sides.  The health care discussions, taken as a whole, are nothing if not case study in the nature of the tensions and gaps between the idealized rational notions of how such matters should be addressed and the irrational behavior that is commonly and predictably displayed.  In fact, it is almost axiomatic that the more consequential and important the issue at hand, the greater will be the likelihood of occurrence of what is typically deemed irrational behavior in the negotiation process.    Despite the professed abiding faith and belief in rational decision making, it should come as  no surprise that one side might accuse the other of convening ‘death panels created to pull the plug on grandma’   while the other side righteously questions the morality and cold heartedness of those who would deny access to health care of people in need, effectively imposing a death sentence on some 45,000 people per year.  Factual accuracy typically counts for little.   

The only real surprise is not that people, and the professionals who minister to them in their difficulties in varied capacities, are predictably irrational, but that we should expect them to be calm rational actors in such circumstances.  More often than not, momentary bouts of  reason and reflection are interspersed with spats and bursts of irrationality—emotional responses sometimes seemingly out of  nowhere,  illogic of varying degrees, faulty or skewed memories of events,  and perceptions of people infiltrated by a multitude of  biases, some blatantly apparent and many others more subtle and unwittingly in play. 

This paradox of over-reliance on rational thinking, at least of the traditional sort,  is all the more stark given the considerable technological and scientific achievements of our Western ‘techno-rational’ culture, as Donald Schon aptly noted in The Reflective Practitioner (1983).   He is not the first, however;  many have described the exaggerated belief that people or professionals are capable of rational deliberation merely by willful act and can merely flip on some metaphoric switch in their brains sufficient to become rational and solve the problem at hand,  and if they choose not to,  are intellectually, if not morally, flawed.   This notion has spawned the “Myth of Rationality” and the ‘progress’ of Western Cultures is popularly attributed to the presumed superiority of the disciplined, dispassionate and objective thinking derived from scientific methodology.  

The Myth of Rationality is pervasive and undergirds most of Western thought.  A myth, used a clinical term, is not a lie, nor is it the truth, but rather a story of significance that helps people make sense of the surrounding world.  (Levi-Strauss, Claude, Myth and Meaning, 1995).   Such myths positively offer worthwhile goals towards which to strive, but often risk being taken as obtainable.   Thus, the Myth of Rationality has fueled the quest for truth and the belief that for every issue or controversy there is a discoverable truth or right answer.   The proposition, which still holds sway is as follows:  if a situation can be soberly studied and parsed into interests and needs, available options generated and subjected to a cost/benefit analysis, then clear, valid and elegant solutions would become apparent.  To the rationalist, there is always an ‘expanding pie’ and never is it a ‘zero sum’ game of either/or.  The presumption of the sufficiency and superiority of rational decision making continues to dominate the list of ‘best practices’ in the approach to  every matter from buying a car based on consumer reports to finding the right answer to every major  social, environmental and economic policy issue imaginable.   A refrain heard constantly from the edges of most controversies is the plea to sit down and discuss the matter calmly and rationally.  

However, many practitioners have discovered that this essentially rational model of  interest based negotiation, originally espoused by Roger Fisher and William Ury in Getting to Yes, first published in 1981,  which has become a bible of sorts,   may work better in theory than in practice.  In the management of complex issues or conflicts, displays of irrationality by the parties and professionals are far more likely to be the rule, and not merely the occasional exception.  People seem all too willing to ‘cut off their noses to spite their face,’ and the practice approaches of many professionals often appear to deny the reality of the stress and frustration of conflict, presuming it can be simply ignored or contained.

While there is still a place for the analytical assessment of conflicts, and it is useful in understanding recurring patterns, most disputes defy formulaic approaches and attempts to force fit such matters into set rationalist paradigm.   The limits of attempting to insert the complex circularity of most human conflicts, regardless of context, into the squared linearity of a ‘diagnosis-prognosis-treatment-cure’ approach,  often proves to be ineffectual at best, and sometimes even exacerbates the matter at hand.   

Ironically, it is from the rigor of rational scientific inquiry that the predictable irrationality of human thinking and decision making, suspected for centuries by many thoughtful writers before and since the Seventeenth Century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, and especially those engaged in the negotiation arts.  Studies in neuroscience and cognitive psychology in recent years have confirmed that the functioning of the human brain is ‘messy’ process and that the irrational thinking patterns of most people are not mere aberrations but regular occurrences, especially in stressful situations.   If accepted, the implications of those findings pose a significant challenge to traditional notions of rational decision making,   and strongly suggest that many of the strategies, techniques and skills premised on those notions are flawed, and often inadequate and ineffective. 

While logic, rational argument and persuasion—the main staples of traditional approaches to conflict management—continue to have a modest usefulness, they are clearly insufficient in dealing with many of the irrational patterns of thinking that are present in most difficult situations and conflicts.  Attempting to persuade someone who is being irrational to ‘be reasonable,’ or ‘calm down,’ often does not work.  Being overly reliant on such a rational strategies and techniques can, in fact, be irrational. There remains, nonetheless, a strong habitual commitment to the frayed thinking of rationality.

In most disputes, while reason is not totally absent, that disposition must be carefully coaxed to the surface and often the least effective means of doing that coaxing is by way of logic and persuasion.       Few people start out calm and reasonable in a dispute.   In fact, when faced with a perceived threat the neurochemistry of the human brain generally encourages a fight or flight response.  There is no chemical secretion that encourages negotiation in the first instance.  While, as Franz DeWaal and other animal ethologists have observed,  as a result of evolutionary biology and psychology, humans along with other animal species  have an embedded urge to be cooperative and  display varying forms of reciprocal altruism,  but these responses are not the first to mind.  (Good Natured, 1997)  Negotiation and other manifestations of collaboration still require a conscious and intentional act to be brought forward and must often overcome strong visceral and emotional torrents of initial resistance.   In short, there is considerable resistance to negotiation.   Logical argument—suggesting, for example, how negotiation might save time and money—while eminently rational, are seldom likely to overcome that resistance and often appear as unconvincing and hollow appeals to people who are hurt and angry.    Appeals to reason, civil discourse and rational decision making, while not entirely naive, are not necessarily effective or realistic approaches to conflict management either.  

As the following series of articles will suggest, the history and philosophy of the Western Cultures has deeply embedded a dichotomy between reason and rational thought and linked emotion with irrational thinking.  This Cartesian dualism between what is deemed valid, quantifiable and objectively rational thinking and what is viewed as the less precise emotional, intuitive and subjectively sensed hunches has held sway for centuries.  Many negotiators and mediators have avoided this dualistic thinking merely because settling difficult disputes seldom affords the luxury of seeking the truth of the matter or making distinctions between hunches and facts.    Often practitioners, being obsessively practice focused on what works, do not tend to be particularly reflective or interested in the esoteric  origins of their habits of practice.  They do not think about how much what they do comes directly out of the dualist/rationalist thinking frame and how that might constrain them within and artificially imposed approach that limits their effectiveness.    In the ‘messy’ functioning of the human brain, separating the reasoning and analytical functions from the emotional processes is nigh on impossible and the lines between reason and emotion and rational and irrational are increasingly blurred.  (Damasio, A., Descartes’ Error, 1994;  Lehrer, J., How We Decide, 2009). 

“Part 2, The Grip of Rationalism and the Myth of Rationality,” will be a short history of rationalism and Myth of Rationality. Only by appreciating how deeply embedded the culture is in devotion to dualist thinking and traditional notions of can the full measure of resistance to negotiation be properly gauged.  In the end, while negotiation is often a necessity and makes practical sense, it is at odds with traditional notions of rationality.   It has a rationality all its own, but is not per se, a rational enterprise for it must, by definition, accept as a working premise the presence of irrationality.

“Part 3, The ‘Messy Brain’ and the Ten Most Common and Predictable Irrationalities Of People In Conflict And The Professionals Who Manage Those Conflicts,”  will examine a few basic principles of  neuroscience and cognitive psychology that require a rethinking of the prevailing rationalist models of negotiation and mediation.  Most are traceable to the compelling conclusion of Antonio Damasio, a highly regarded neuroscientist, that there is no such thing as a “cool headed reasoner.”  While aspects of human behavior and decision making draw upon the executive functioning of the brain, those incidents are always inextricably connected and linked with emotional processes.  This directly contradicts the dualist notions that reason and emotion can be neatly dichotomized, or as many conflict management practitioners presume, people can be separated from the problem.

“Part 4, “Irrational Professionals’:  The Orthodoxies, Habits and Ruts of  Negotiators and Mediators,” will consider how many presumptively rational strategies and techniques commonly practiced and taught are irrational and dysfunctional.  Such rationalist approaches can sometimes encourage rather than aid in managing the conflict at hand, and are thus counterproductive and irrational.   For most people under stress, not just the participants but the professionals, their brains encourage a reversion to habits of thinking that can quickly become ruts.   This also requires an examination of  the pedagogy, education and training of negotiation and mediation which reinforces the traditional rationalist thinking frame and perpetuates many of the habits and ruts of  practitioners.

“Part 5,  On Becoming Rationally Irrational: Breaking the Grip of Rationalism and  Harnessing Irrationality,”   will examine how to begin to recognize and become aware of irrational behaviors, both the parties involved and ourselves as  conflict management professionals, and how to harness that behavior constructively.   Specifically, this requires a different kind of strategic thinking that presumes the occurrence of irrationality and calculates how to use in-direct, unconventional and, in some instances, seemingly irrational techniques that may draw from principles of ‘crazy wisdom’ to accommodate and constructively manage the irrationality.  Among other strategies and techniques discussed will be, the constructive uses of deception, nudges, cloaked and surreptitious approaches, and paradoxical injunctions.     This thinking is difficult because it requires a departure from traditional notions of logic and persuasion and often goes against the grain of most professional training and education.

In the end, the purpose is to break down the prevailing distinction between what is viewed as rational and irrational behavior.   What has heretofore been viewed as ‘irrational behavior’ to be contained or suppressed,  either because of the emotion displayed or seeming illogic,  may be not only be necessary but usefully employed in managing conflict.  Conversely, what appears to be civil and rational discourse can, as often as not, be little more than a mask or subterfuge disguising the real underlying conflict.  Being too rational can be irrational; a professional negotiator or mediator who insists on conformity to a pre-set structure might miss a key clue to settlement.   And, some parties attempt to browbeat others with claims of being more reasonable and use their presumed logic and rationality as a weapon.

The notion of the rational actor,  or the folkloric ‘economic person’  who makes predictable decisions based on their calculated self interest has been largely exaggerated,   and if it ever did, no longer offers a useful model by which to understand how people make decisions in almost any circumstance, let alone in the midst of a stressful and difficult conflict.    Even the word ‘rational’ may be so tainted and imprecise at this point in time so as to be an unnecessary distraction. The definitions of rationality and irrationality, when applied to judgments about human actions, collapse into themselves just as in space a black hole as a one way event horizon into which gravity and light can fall, but nothing—no meaning— can return.   Being rational must necessarily include being irrational and being irrational can be quite rational.    This awareness conforms far more closely to how the ‘messy’ human brain functions and allows for a more realistic appraisal of how human being think and respond to conflict.  For negotiators and mediators, escaping the grip of rationalism developing a thinking frame that is essentially ‘arational,’ will allow for far greater latitude of thought creativity in managing conflict.   

November 16, 2009


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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