Part of being an effective mediator is having a good understanding about how people make decisions. After all, a mediator is assisting people in making decisions. We all like to think we are making rational decisions. However, that is not always the case (despite our best efforts to the contrary).
Professor Daniel Ariely (Duke University and MIT) conducts extensive research on human behavior and has written a fabulous book on this topic, Predictably Irrational. He looks at how free! really isn’t free and how morality disappears when we’re emotionally (or sexually) aroused.
In game theory, there is a game called the Ultimatum Game. One person is given an allotment of money, say $1000, and is told to offer a certain portion of it to another person. If the other person accepts, they both get that amount of money. If the second person declines, neither party gets the money. Rationally, the second person should accept anything offered to them as any dollar they receive is more than they had previously. Studies done by Professor Ariely and his collegues have shown that most people will not accept less than 30% of the total pot.
There are a number of theories as to why the second player would act seemingly irrationally. One is that the second player is making a “fairness” judgment: it’s not fair that the first player is getting more than 70% of the money thus they should get nothing (while the first player gets nothing either). Another is that the second player is setting themselves up for a better payout just in case there is a second round of the game (while there is no guarantee that there will be).
To test this further, the experimenters went to a bar where they were likely to find drunken (and hence “more rational” people who focus more on short term goals, versus the longer term goal of a better second round). They found that most drunks would turn down deals for less than 50% of the money.
There is an interesting parallel to negotiations (and mediation discussions). Parties to a negotiation often will get lost in the emotions of the conflict and instead of seeing their own best interests are taken care of, they become more interested in “hurting” the other party even though it hurts them as well. If fighting over a fixed pot of money, anchoring (the first offer made by each side) becomes that much more important.