Negotiation and Neuroscience: Possible Lessons for Negotiation Instruction

By — on / Pedagogy at PON

By Todd Schenk

Can an Understanding of Neuroscience Help Inform Teaching Negotiation? 

Cognition and emotion are important elements of negotiation, from the emergence of disputes through the implementation of agreements. The growing body of research in the cognitive sciences may be able to help us improve negotiation instruction. Thus, the fall 2012 Negotiation Pedagogy Faculty Dinner Seminar invited two experts to share their findings.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University presented the findings generated by her laboratory and speculated with us on their implications for practice.

Jeremy Lack, attorney, mediator, and arbitrator with JAMS International is co-founder of Neuroawareness Consulting Services (

PON-affiliated respondents were: Kim Leary, the Chief Psychologist and Director of Psychology and Psychology Training, Cambridge Health Alliance, and Associate Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School; Hal Movius, the President of Movius Consulting Inc.; and Dan Shapiro, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital, Director, Harvard International Negotiation Program, and Associate Director, Harvard Negotiation Project.

Neuro-Principles and Negotiations

Jeremy Lack offered a visual experiment to demonstrate the subjectivity of even the most seemingly objective and value-free of facts, challenging the legal syllogism of facts (past and present) + applicable law(s) = outcomes or conclusions. We often think of ourselves and the parties we work with as entirely rational, when in fact our individual realities are firmly rooted in our subjective perceptions, which are shaped by the particular ways in which our brains and sensory systems have evolved. Lack and his colleague, François Bogacz posit ten Neuro-Principles that bound how parties respond to negotiation and dispute resolution situations:

  1.  We consume our brain’s resources efficiently, and create patterns/scripts/memories
  2.  We predict according to our patterns/scripts/memories
  3.  We are conditioned to avoid and be far more sensitive to danger/fear than to  reward/pleasure, which we seek (“away” v. “towards” reflexes)
  4.  We first perceive via emotions (unconsciously) before being able to self- regulate  (consciously or by habits)
  5.  We seek safe or comfortable status positions at all times
  6.  We relate and empathize in-group (but not “out-of-group”)
  7.  We believe in “fairness” and react negatively to “unfair” behavior
  8.  We need autonomy/feelings of autonomy and feel/suffer if it is lost
  9.  Our “social” stimuli are as powerful as our “physical” ones
  10.  We operate cognitively in 2 gears (“refleXive” & “refleCtive” modes): primarily in X-  mode

These principles have practical implications for the way negotiators can prepare, generate options and seek compliance, and how mediators and lawyers can intervene in conflict prevention and resolution processes. Lack explained the scientific foundation for many of these principles, and how they shape the behavior of all participants. For example, our heightened sensitivity to danger and fear means that we respond to negative stimuli much more quickly, dwell on them longer, and consequently have fewer resources available for other cognitive activity so that we are ready for urgent flight or fight responses. In the context of negotiation, this means that it can take more work to build trust and work towards agreements by stimulating feelings of reward and pleasure than it takes to derail a process by doing something to trigger feelings of danger or fear.

Seven Stages to Shape More Skillful Interventions in Negotiations 

The power of social stimuli suggests that it is very important to design negotiation and dispute resolution processes that signal to participants that they are being integrated, valued and respected as part of the process.  The same dynamic underlies the damage that can be caused by negative interactions. The value humans place in status shapes how parties view both themselves and others in a negotiation, with implications for how they behave. We strongly differentiate between those in our group, with whom we empathize naturally, and those outside our group, with whom we may have more difficulty empathizing, and are often more defensive and/or aggressive. Negotiations in which parties are labeled as opponents stimulate very different cognitive responses than those in which counterparts perceive themselves as partners seeking mutual benefits.

An important consideration for practitioners and teachers is how we ought to build on these insights into human cognition as we teach negotiation, mediation and ADR advocacy skills, and seek to trigger ‘pro-settlement’ behaviors.  The 10 neuro-principles can be used at seven stages to shape more skillful interventions in any negotiation or ADR process:

  1. Preparation,
  2. Openings,
  3. Exploration,
  4. Option generation,
  5. Selection,
  6. Closing, and,
  7. Compliance.

Lack provided a variety of suggestions. First, priming, framing or reformulating are very important, as they offer ways to shape how initial patterns of behavior and negotiations unfold. Even the use of a single word – like keep instead of lose – in the presentation of options can unconsciously influence the conscious choices people make. Furthermore, in addition to words, we need to be conscious of the para-verbal and non-verbal communications that pervade negotiations and group dynamics.

Processes presented in more adversarial terms (e.g., priming by requesting position papers or opening statements) are likely to incite behaviors that differ from those that arise when negotiations are framed in collaborative or consensual terms (e.g., priming by requesting interest charts or invitations to initiate a conversation). Lack advances a view of mediation that tries to take neurobiology into account, claiming that it is not simply facilitated negotiation, but a facilitated social, emotional and cognitive process. “What social and in-group scripts are triggered by the process itself, and how you should prime and prepare people for coming into the process,” are the key questions for Lack.  He sees the 7 phases as providing critical junctures where all participants, including counsel and the neutrals, can apply the 10 neuro-principles to optimize interventions.

In the words of mediator David Plant, “we have to start by defining the process as part of the problem.” We need to be cognizant of human tendencies and how they might influence negotiation. And, we need to be aware of how our own perceptions influence outcomes and how the process itself can trigger first impressions and affect the participants’ social scripts and patterns.

Lack suggested that we need to think much more about how students learn, with a possible goal of fostering new patterns of behavior. This requires an appreciation for how neural assemblies encode, retain and retrieve information. Lack argued that the key issue is how to help our students create new professional reflexes: new “X-systems” that “know how to look for interests instinctively and not just for positions or the application of legal syllogisms, which is what law schools tend to generate as initial approaches to problem solving. We tend to create professional reflexes that are about position seeking and understanding positions, and not perspective-taking and looking at things by interests.” We need to think about what we can do as teachers to help our students exercise different reflexes and increase their self-awareness. Devices like mnemonics can also be useful in this regard.

Emotions and the Brain

Professor Barrett began by noting that she is an academic doing basic research. Nonetheless, the group tried to draw all kinds of implications for teaching and practice from her work. Her lab is exploring the nature of emotion and how the brain creates mental states.

She started by providing a brief overview of the history of psychology, leading up to cognitivism, which utilizes brain imaging to measure activity. This paradigm is linked to a linear understanding of how our brains work – from perceptions of things in the world, through cognitions in which emotions are triggered and then to regulation after the fact – upon which important institutions like the law are based. The cutting-edge research coming out of Barrett’s lab indicates that the brain does not work in this way.

Recent findings suggest that particular emotions cannot be localized to specific swaths of brain tissue. Rather, brain regions, like the amygdala and anterior insula, are very active during a wide range of cognitive functions and emotions. Recent evidence from Barrett’s lab also suggests the absence of distinct networks for emotions. Just as certain regions are found to be active across a range of emotions, so too are certain networks found to be consistently active across a range of emotion. In fact, the same regions and networks of the brain are found to be active across not just emotions, but a wide variety of other cognitive functions, including memory, perception and the processing of word meaning. “The goal really of science is to try and figure out what these networks do because they are common to thinking, feeling and perceiving,” said Barrett.

In light of these findings, the hypothesis Barrett and her colleagues are currently pursuing is that “brain networks perform basic psychological operations that you see in all kinds of mental states, and that thinking, and feeling and perceiving are not different processes in the brain. They are different kinds of mental experiences that can be deconstructed by looking at the combinations of these different networks.” Understanding these network combinations may enable us to shed light on what someone is going to do next.

The words and concepts for emotion in a language determine which emotions people perceive and, very likely, experience. Taking language ‘off-line’ can break the perception of emotions (i.e., when you cannot access the word “angry,” you cannot see a scowling face as angry). This has important implications for interpersonal communication, including negotiations, as we make inferences about others’ mental states by looking at their faces. “Our degree of accuracy is contingent on the extent to which we share vocabularies of emotional concepts and know the same words,” stated Barrett.

Manipulating Perceptions 

The physical states that are important to emotion also influence other phenomena, like perceptions of other people. “I can manipulate someone’s physical state and I can get them to see another person as trustworthy or not…likable or not, attractive or not, competent or not. I’m not manipulating anything other than their physical state when I do this and I’m doing it without their awareness… We [previously] didn’t really understand the extent to which we make judgments about the world based on our own feeling states,” Barrett explained.

Barrett concluded by suggesting that a lot can be learned about how people engage and interact if we understand what these networks are and how to manipulate them. We would do well to understand communications as efforts to create mental states in others – As “attempts to affect the mental state that the other person is having so that they’ll engage in a behavior that is at least predictable to you, if not desirable.”

The Limitations of Neurobiology and Opportunities for Further Exploration

The respondents and other attendees commented on the presentations and raised questions and concerns. The implications of neurobiology for negotiation practice and pedagogy were clearly of great interest.

Hal Movius made five quick points.  First, he suggested that every one of the “neuro” principles was already supported by behavioral research 20 years ago. For example, findings with respect to dissociations in memory and learning systems; attachment theory and social regulation; in-group favoritism from social identity theory; loss aversion from prospect theory; punitive responses to violation of norms; procedural fairness; and conscious vs. unconscious processing of stimuli. Findings from neuroscience might thus be better viewed as corroborating existing knowledge than representing new knowledge.

Second, he interpreted Lisa Feldman Barrett’s presentation as implying that we need to be careful not to perceive or describe neurological phenomena in categorical terms.  He wondered whether, as negotiation teachers, we should be skeptical of the implicit assumption that the ’emotional’ brain – animalistic, amygdala-driven, and irrational – is unreliable but can be overcome through a more rational, joint problem-solving approach. He suggested that some people may be emotionally inclined to be problem-solvers while others might be less emotional but quite rigid in their thinking and behaviors.  Emotions and emotional intelligence may be central to effective negotiation, rather than something to be overcome.

Third, he noted the important disassociation – corroborated by neuroscientific observations – between what people say they are thinking and feeling and what they actually seem to be experiencing or preferring. As a result, he questioned whether we should be teaching people to state their interests and ask counterparts to do the same.  Instead, we might teach negotiators and mediators to elicit interests by presenting multiple hypothetical options or packages.

Fourth, current research at the University of Virginia and elsewhere suggests that brains share cognitive and emotional resources and often perform better as a result.  He wondered whether we should teach parties to go into high-stakes negotiations alone given the apparent benefit of having a colleague present.

Movius concluded by endorsing renewed attention to emotional and social experience in a field that has drawn primarily from game theory and law, sometimes sidelining complicated but “softer” stuff.  Still, he worried, we do have to be careful not to run headlong into saying ‘aha!  we can now see this stuff  in the brain, so therefore it’s important!’.

Embracing Emotions

Kim Leary reflected on her preparations for the evening, thinking about Steve Job’s advice to ‘stay hungry, stay foolish,’ and to embrace emotions rather than burying them as fast as possible. She noted “that being able to hold and metabolize difficult emotions might well sponsor innovation and be a part of creativity.” She flagged the outstanding question of how this might map on to neurobiology.

Leary also emphasized the importance of framing, taking account of emotions in the context of negotiation. Talking about the science of emotion allows us to deal with these ‘squishy subjects’ in an academic context, giving us license to take them seriously.

“What does it mean when we try to ‘change our minds’ both in negotiation or mediation, or try to change the minds of our students,” asked Leary. Lamenting the lack of hand-held brain scanners to take to class to monitor the amygdala of students, she suggested that video and other readily accessible technologies might serve as rough substitutes. Videos provide opportunities for parties to examine and evaluate both their own behaviors and those of others in social interactions.

The New Religion of Science 

Dan Shapiro was the most provocative about the evening’s topic, questioning what neuroscience really can offer those teaching negotiation. He argued that “neuroscience is the new religion of science.” The history of psychology is replete with examples of theories raised to the stature of gospel, he suggested, citing the fleeting popularity of Freud’s depth psychology, Skinner’s behaviorism, and the cognitive “revolution.”  In reality, each theory has its strengths, but also its limitations.

Shapiro illustrated some of the strengths and limits of neuroscience through example.  How, he asked, does the micro-level understanding of brain activity around empathy help the practicing negotiator better empathize?  One benefit of using neuroscience in teaching negotiation is that – if it is the ‘new religion of science’ – instructors can draw on the “hard data” of neuroscience to persuade people about the importance of the ‘soft skills.’  The rationally-minded corporate executive may thus be more inclined to consciously empathize once shown how hard science supports its practical utility.  The downside of this, of course, is when persuasion is based not on science, but pseudoscience or unintentional misinterpretation of scientific findings.

Shapiro delved further into why negotiators could benefit from understanding the functionality and structure of the brain.  He suggested that, at the least, micro-level understanding of the brain is important when our mental systems break down.  That is, neuroscience might be more valuable in terms of its insights into overcoming psychopathology.  He made the analogy to driving a car.  Most of us have little need to know the inner workings of a car in order to drive it.  When the car breaks down, however, an understanding of its structural and functional aspects becomes not just useful, but essential.

Channeling Innate Creative Thinking Processes 

Lack confirmed that neurobiology corroborates what is known from psychology, but that it adds more and integrates many approaches and theories into a useful collective framework that can be more accessible to people who may be resistant to ‘soft sciences.’  He reiterated the importance of process design from a neurobiological perspective – the setting, the preparations, the way we ask participants to engage and find comfortable status positions can prime participants’ behaviors and perceptions. He noted that – when we start to think about it at the neurobiological level – we realize the major impacts we have as mediators and teachers of negotiation. He believes that an understanding of the 10 neuro-principles can make a very big difference for lawyers and ADR practitioners as well as students, and cited the findings of Neuroawareness Consulting Services, which after training 170 experienced mediators to apply the 10 neuro-principles followed up with 60 students, who reported improved self-awareness, awareness of others and perspective-taking abilities, including new attitudes to learning and practical skills (e.g., identifying and addressing social issues, dealing with emotions, process design preparations and optimizing interventions).  This supports using “applied neuroscience” as an additional tool in the negotiation teaching toolbox.  “We can make completely different and more skilled interventions when we have a cognitive understanding of the scripts and patterns that are there. I’m not talking about therapy or seeking to change people’s mindsets, but discrete and brief interventions to channel people’s innate creative thinking processes and cooperative social patterns of behavior, which allow for more empathetic behavior and ‘win-win’ interests-oriented outcomes,” said Lack.

Pedagogy @ PON co-director Michael Wheeler noted that “we are talking about very hard stuff. Negotiation is fundamentally relational. We are constantly redefining who we are against someone, or with someone else – that’s serious business.” David Hoffman had the last word, noting how much more we can still learn from neurobiology, likening the current state of research to the ‘dawn of weather prediction.’  “It’s a massively complex system, and it’s not a system about which we know nothing, but it’s a system about which enormous amounts of data need to be gathered and analyzed before we make any useful predictions […] there are certain things we’ve learned over the centuries that have a behavioral aspect, and I wonder how long it will take before we can divine them, so to speak, from the scientific data that you are measuring in the laboratory.”


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