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Changing the Other Guy's Mind Part I -- Neural Networks & Mental Maps

How many times have we mediators been asked to  "just make the other guy see how wrong he is." And how many times have we tried?

While ADR scholars debate the pros and cons of evaluative and facilitative mediation, our friends the neuroscientists are proving what we already suspect to be true. 

We can't change anyone's mind but our own.

The good news is that we can assist others in changing the way they think by understanding the mental wiring by which we all think.  

First the Neuroscience

In their recent article, The Neuroscience of LeadershipDavid Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz explain why inspiring people to alter their own way of thinking is not just the best, but the only way to change someone else's mind.    

Habit and Working Memory

When we encounter novel situations (or information that is antithetical to our way of thinking) it is our "working" memory that compares the new information with our old belief systems.  Our brains reward us with a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline when we create novel mental connections as a result. 

The emphasis in the phrase "working memory," however, is on work.  

When we engage our working memory, we activate our prefrontal cortex, an energy-intensive part of the brain.  The prefrontal cortex is the brain's gymnasium, its life-cycles and treadmills.  

The rote mental tasks we perform every day are governed by the basal ganglia where neural circuits of long-standing habit are formed and held.  In the gymnasium of the brain, the basal ganglia are the jacuzzi and steamroom.    

To change our way of thinking about things is as much work as changing our diet and exercise habits.  The rewards are great but sloth often overtakes us.  

So one of the major sources of resistance to change is simple intellectual laziness.   

Fight or Flight in the Reptilian Brain

A tendency toward mental sloth is not all that stands between us and a "eureka" moment.  The brain also has a boxing ring -- the orbital frontal cortex.  This part of the brain is closely connected to the amygdala, the part governing fear and anger.  The part that fights or flees. 

When the amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex are activated, they draw metabolic energy away from the prefrontal (rational) region, leading us to become highly emotional and impulsive.  This is the point at which the attorneys begin to pack their bags, accuse the other side of acting in bad faith, or burst into anger over "insulting" offers or counter-proposals. 

As Rock and Scwartz conclude:

Try to change another person's behavior, even with the best possible justification and he or she will experience discomfort.  The brain sends out powerful messages that something is wrong, and the capacity for higher thought is decreased.  Change itself thus amplifies stress and discomfort. 

It is Almost Futile to Attempt to Change Someone Else's Mind  

Given the strength of the brain's resistance to change, what hope do we have of convincing our opponents to work productively with us toward a mutually agreeable resolution, rather than a resentfully reached compromise?

The neural networks that reflect and control our habitual way of looking at the world are actual physical structures in the brain.  The neuroscientists tell us that these networks are built over the course of a lifetime in response to teaching, family, culture, society, religion and scores of other sources. 

Our neural networks are so unique, the scientists say, that there is "little point in trying to work out how another person ought to reorganize his or her thinking." 

Let me emphasize that.  It is almost futile to try to change someone else's mind.  

Since that is what litigators do -- try to change people's minds about the way things happened and which rules should govern the consequences flowing from the way things happened -- this is bad news.  We've spent our lifetimes trying to change the minds of our co-counsel, our clients, the judge, the jury, courts of appeal, and courts of public opinion.   

Let me repeat myself.  Our efforts to do so are almost futile. 

Insight and Collaborative Problem Solving

You knew where this was going.  People alter their way of thinking, change their minds, mend their ways, transform their experience, only by cultivating moments of insight.  Rock and Schwartz explain:

Large-scale behavior change requires a large-scale change in mental maps.  This in turn requires some kind of event or experience that allows people to provoke themselves, in effect, to change their attitudes and expectations more quickly and dramatically than they normally would.

The Ways in Which We Can Create Environments to Stimulate and Support Insight that Leads to Major Changes in the Way We Think Will Be the Subject of Tomorrow's Post.

Comments (1)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
Zach - October 12, 2008 1:52 PM

This not only has application in law, but in almost every endeavor.

I'm looking forward to reading the second part of the post - (doesn't this support the feeling of needing to get your brain out of a rut?)

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