By Steven G. Mehta


So much of what we do in mediation is an attempt to convince people to change their mind regarding something that they have been set on for a long time. Sometimes, we use research or studies to support our attempt to help change the behavior or decision. We may cite to other experiences or statistical analysis. However, recent research has revealed that there may be problems with this approach. According to Geoffrey Munro at Towson University in America, when people are faced with scientific research that clashes with their personal view, they make every effort to discount that information.

Munro’s research suggests that people will often judge that the topic at hand is not amenable to scientific inquiry. Munro says that by embracing the general idea that some topics are beyond the reach of science, such people are able to maintain belief in their own intellectual credibility, rather than feeling that they’ve selectively dismissed unpalatable findings. In the context of mediation, this is common when a client might be told about the statistical probability of succeeding at trial. Many times the client might comment that those other cases didn’t involve the facts of this case. Such a comment is frequently an attempt to discount scientific evidence relating to the topic.

The British Pyschological Society interviewed Professor Munro to ask him, whether there are any ways to combat the scientific impotence excuse. His response was fascinating to the application of dispute resolution. He stated,

“One of the most difficult things to do is to admit that you are wrong. In cases where a person is exposed to scientific conclusions that contradict her or his existing beliefs, one option would be to accept the scientific conclusions and change one’s beliefs. It sounds simple enough, and, for many topics, it is that simple. However, some of our beliefs are much more resistant to change. These are the ones that are important to us. They may be linked to other important aspects of our identity or self-concept (e.g., “I’m an environmentalist ”) or relevant to values that are central to who we are (e.g., “I believe in the sanctity of human life”) or meaningful to the social groups to which we align ourselves (e.g., “I’m a union man like my father and grandfather before him”) or associated with deeply-held emotions (e.g., “Homosexuality disgusts me”). When scientific conclusions challenge these kinds of beliefs, it’s much harder to admit that we were wrong because it might require a rethinking of our sense of who we are, what values are important to us, who we align ourselves with, and what our gut feelings tell us. Thus, a cognitively easier solution might be to not admit our beliefs have been defeated but to question the validity of the scientific conclusions. We might question the methodological quality of the scientific evidence, the researcher’s impartiality, or even the ability of scientific methods to provide us with useful information about this topic (and other topics as well). This final resistance technique is what I called “scientific impotence”.

According to Munro, scientific evidence can be threatening when it challenges an important belief. It challenges all of your fundamental beliefs about a topic. It can cause stress, embarrassment, and anxiousness. Therefore, Munro suggests the most effective ways to break the resistance is to present such conclusions in non-threatening ways. For example, other researchers have shown that affirming a person’s values prior to presenting belief-challenging scientific conclusions breaks down the usual resistance.

I sometimes call this the sandwich approach. You provide the bad news (the meat) in between two pieces of good news (the bread) in an attempt to soften the blow.

Another technique is to frame the issue that is consistent with the opinions that are already held. For example, when a person distrusts the court system, it is not hard to show that the courts may get it wrong – even though the client may be “right.”

Munro also suggests that the language that is used to explain the findings can help to change the resistance. In other words, don’t use words that are emotionally charged. This is similar to the concept of using I words instead of You words.

Even when we think that scientific research should persuade others, it doesn’t. It is important to understand that even if you know you are right, you still have to persuade unbelievers of that principle.
Research Source:

Munro, G. (2010). The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40 (3), 579-600 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00588.x

British Pyschological Society, Research Digest Blog,