Blindingly Optimistic

Blindingly Optimistic

By Daniel Kershen, CEDR Foundation Project Co-ordinator

Research this weekend has revealed the reason behind the human proclivity of remaining positive, even in the face of grave adversity reports the BBC.  It turns out that “laughing in the face of danger” is not necessarily down to bravery or courage, but rather a propensity for the human brain to virtually ignore any information that dissolves their rose-tinted world-view.  Not laughing anymore!

The study, published in Nature Neuroscience this week, identifies a ‘faulty’ process in our frontal lobe that leads people to happily accept news that allows them to reduce their perception of risk in any given situation, whilst they broadly dismiss anything that indicates that the risks are actually higher than previously thought.  (This research relates closely to Margaret Heffernan’s insightful work in “wilful blindness”, which you can read about on the CEDR Blog here.)  This “optimism phenomenon” is something that mediators, working with parties in conflict, often encounter and have to manage effectively.

Participants in the study, whilst being monitored in a MRI scan, were faced with a series of possible negative life events such as developing cancer or being in a car accident.  They were asked to rate the risk of this event happening to them, and having given their evaluation, were presented with the actual statistical evidence.  If the evidence was lower than their expected risk, participants were keen to downgrade their risk significantly to align with the evidence.  Conversely if the participants evaluation of risk was lower than the evidence presented, the participants were loath to accept this and maintained the underestimation of some catastrophe occurring to them.

The MRI results revealed that when given negative information, those of a sanguine disposition presented the least frontal lobe activity, whereas the morose few showed the most activity.  Since frontal lobe activity is linked with processing errors, scientists have deciphered that those who are more inclined to predict positive outcomes are not swayed by evidence that goes against their optimistic outlook.

The world of science has debated why optimism is such a powerful driver in behaviour, even when faced with information that goes completely against our rosy prediction.  It appears now that there exists an observable filtering process occurring in the human brain to manage this momentary dissonance, letting optimism consistently win out.

This is something that can be observed in conflict quite clearly.  Often individuals in conflict will find it especially hard to recognise and take on board the implications of information that contradicts what they believe to be true or fair.  Conflicting parties often find that their deep seeded feelings of righteousness, and subsequent expectations for success can hinder them from seeing all the possible ramifications of their actions in a conflict.

A CEDR mediator is specifically trained to manage the testing of realities, and as such the negation of potential risks and pitfalls that lie on the road to resolution.  Through mediation the parties are encouraged to look at the whole picture, to stand back from the situation and develop a more rounded view of what’s going on.  Optimism is naturally illustrated in exploring the parties “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” (BATNA).  Part of the mediators role is to facilitate the development of a more holistic understanding of the dispute, and so should also address what the parties see as their “worst possible alternative to a negotiated agreement” (WATNA).

Optimism is key to the human condition, driving us to reach for our goals and strive to achieve.  However as this study reveals, sometimes that same optimism can prevent us from being able to see the risk that we may be taking in pursuing those goals.  In conflict the risks are often great, and in many cases greater than parties let themselves believe, however the mediation provides an opportunity for the parties to sit down and recognise these for themselves and realistically evaluate how dangerous they are.

Our experience, contrary to this research, is that in disputes this recognition of realities, both positive and negative, does have a mitigating effect on how the parties perceive the conflict to play out.

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One Response to Blindingly Optimistic

  1. neelofar 18/11/2011 at 06:09 #

    Great insight Daniel. It is so true that people in conflict tend to look at their own side of the facts with rose tinted glasses .CEDR trained mediators are well equipped for reality testing and enabling the parties to view the facts in broad day light.

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