My Amygdala Made Me Do It: Neuroscience and the Law
The New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story this coming week -- The Brain on the Stand -- covers a lot of territory on the use (and potential abuse) of neuroscience in the legal system.
While the scientists debate whether knowledge gleaned from sophisticated brain imagery demonstrates that our brain activity controls our behavior or simply reflects it, those of us concerned with decision making have much to learn from it.
Because my work is pretty much exclusively devoted to finding mutually beneficial resolutions to hotly contested litigation, neuroscience insights into how and why we make decisions -- and how we might make them better -- have been invaluable in my practice.
In this article, author Jeffrey Rosen describes the results of one neuroscientific experiment suggesting that dampening our emotional reactions to the regretably common "insulting first offer" might keep us in the negotiation process long enough to let our more rational responses prevail.
'A remarkable technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, for example, has been used to stimulate or inhibit specific regions of the brain. It can temporarily alter how we think and feel.
Using T.M.S., Ernst Fehr and Daria Knoch of the University of Zurich temporarily disrupted each side of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in test subjects. They asked their subjects to participate in an experiment that economists call the ultimatum game.
One person is given $20 and told to divide it with a partner. If the partner rejects the proposed amount as too low, neither person gets any money.
Subjects whose prefrontal cortexes were functioning properly tended to reject offers of $4 or less: they would rather get no money than accept an offer that struck them as insulting and unfair.
[remember -- even monkeys would rather earn no "salary" than let their "CEO" monkey make five times as much as they do -- so this is animal behavior]
But subjects whose right prefrontal cortexes were suppressed by T.M.S. tended to accept the $4 offer. Although the offer still struck them as insulting, they were able to suppress their indignation and to pursue the selfishly rational conclusion that a low offer is better than nothing.
I do not cite this research to suggest that we should be satisfied with "insulting and unfair" proposals. I cite it only for the thoughtful consideration of litigants and business people everywhere.
It is perfectly 'rational" to respond to an insulting offer by rejecting it. Being alert to our tendency to allow emotions to reign in response might give us the breathing room we need to calm our clients and continue to pursue a settlement negotiations that could well lead to resolutions that are neither insulting nor unfair.
The article is invaluable reading for anyone wanting to answer the question -- what in the world could the other side be thinking? A question that can only be answered when the parties sit down together with a commitment to seeing the negotiation through.
And if you're not already on speaking terms with your amygdala, click here for a fuller (lay) explanation of its effect on decision making.