Why Does Mediation Often Work Better than Litigation?

From the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution Blog

Over seventy years ago, the psychologist Kurt Lewin and his colleagues had a preposterous idea. They wanted to pit democracy against autocracy in the laboratory in order to provide empirical evidence of the benefits of more egalitarian forms of leadership. This was a problem near to Lewin’s heart having recently fled Nazi-controlled Germany. Social science had never attempted an experiment so bold.

The researchers studied adolescent boys in classrooms, providing them with either autocratic, Laissez Faire, or democratic adult leadership on a group task. The autocratic group was productive, but only as long as the adult was present to watch over them. As soon as he left the room, all hell broke loose! The Lassie-faire group was a mess from the start, with lower productivity, satisfaction, and cohesiveness. In contrast, the democratic-led group showed less tension and hostility, more cohesion and cooperation, and were equally as productive as the autocratic group, but also continued to be productive when the adult left the room!

This study demonstrated a critical difference between autocracy, which often elicits compliance from followers – but only when scrutinized – and democracy, which engenders commitment to a task or agreement through a kind of motivation that becomes internalized and owned by the follower. They were involved in the decision process and so commit to the decision.

The implications for mediation are straightforward. Dispute processes and settlements that are imposed on parties from on-high (judges, bosses, etc.), will be more likely to elicit mere compliance, which must be monitored to work. Settlements that are reached through more egalitarian, participatory processes like mediation will be much more likely to foster a commitment to the agreement that will stick.

Viva le Democracy!

Lewin, K., Lippitt, R., & White, R. K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 271-279.


Peter T. Coleman

Peter T. Coleman is the Director of ICCCR and Professor of Psychology and Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Social / Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Iowa. He has conducted research on social entitivity processes (ingroup/outgroup formation),… MORE >

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