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By Steven G. Mehta

Over this year, I have had countless times when I have heard my son say, “It’s not fair” about something that happened on the playground at school.  Usually, I have to talk about how even if it is not fair, there are certain constraints that he may have to face.  He usually begrudgingly goes up to his room to ponder why – when Roger took cuts in the handball line – that he has to live with the unfairness.  Come to find out that my son’s sense of fairness and equality in treatment is hardwired in his and everyone’s brain.  According to new research, the human brain physically wants things to be fair and equal.  Amazingly, scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, have become the first to have photographs (MRI) to prove it.

Specifically, the team found that the reward centers in the human brain respond more strongly when a poor person receives a financial reward than when a rich person does. The surprising thing? This same pattern holds true even if the brain being looked at is in the rich person’s head, rather than the poor person’s.

“It’s long been known that we humans don’t like inequality, especially when it comes to money. Tell two people working the same job that their salaries are different, and there’s going to be trouble,” notes John O’Doherty, professor of psychology at Caltech, Thomas N. Mitchell Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, and the principal investigator on the project.   However, what we apparently didn’t know is how much the brain really disliked inequality of treatment.

“In this study, we’re starting to get an idea of where this inequality aversion comes from,” he says. “It’s not just the application of a social rule or convention; there’s really something about the basic processing of rewards in the brain that reflects these considerations.”

The study found that the reward centers in the volunteers’ brains — reacted to the various scenarios differently depending strongly upon whether they started the experiment with a financial advantage over their peers.  The study made subjects in experiment more or less poor compared to others in the study.

“People who started out poor had a stronger brain reaction to things that gave them money, and essentially no reaction to money going to another person,” Mr. Camerer, a co-author,  says. “By itself, that wasn’t too surprising.”

What was surprising was the other side of the coin. “In the experiment, people who started out rich had a stronger reaction to other people getting money than to themselves getting money,” Camerer explains. “In other words, their brains liked it when others got money more than they liked it when they themselves got money.”  Wow!

The discovery finds that the brain’s positive reaction is not just when we are self-interested, adds O’Doherty. “They don’t exclusively respond to the rewards that one gets as an individual, but also respond to the prospect of other individuals obtaining a reward.”

What was especially interesting about the finding, he says, is that the brain responds “very differently to rewards obtained by others under conditions of disadvantageous inequality versus advantageous inequality. It shows that the basic reward structures in the human brain are sensitive to even subtle differences in social context.”

“As a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist who works on reward and motivation, I very much view the brain as a device designed to maximize one’s own self interest,” says O’Doherty. “The fact that these basic brain structures appear to be so readily modulated in response to rewards obtained by others highlights the idea that even the basic reward structures in the human brain are not purely self-oriented.”

Having watched the brain react to inequality, O’Doherty says, the next step is to “try to understand how these changes in valuation actually translate into changes in behavior. For example, the person who finds out they’re being paid less than someone else for doing the same job might end up working less hard and being less motivated as a consequence. It will be interesting to try to understand the brain mechanisms that underlie such changes.”

This physical reaction could party explain why there is so much trauma associated with early offers or demands by parties that are so far out of the realm of possibility as to make them unfair.  Many times people have a visceral reaction to unfair offers  — and that reaction can often be violent (in the non physical sense).  Indeed, just yesterday I had a mediation that one side felt was going in an unfair fashion.  The plaintiff felt that the offers being provided by the insurance company were far below the value of the case.  The plaintiff felt that the end of the day number was also far below what was “fair” for the case.  This presented a huge obstacle to overcome.

In my case, time was an important ally to allow the party to digest the information and for the logical brain to rationalize and make sense of the instant physical reaction that is now apparent was going on.  Second, we discussed that although the plaintiff may perceive the result as unfair, what would be their reaction to a possibly even more unfair jury verdict in a very difficult jurisdiction.  That time and discussion was helpful  in allowing the party to finally realize that even if the end offer was unfair, it was better than what could happen at trial.

This brings up an important point:  People’s initial reaction (which could be physical and uncontrollable) do not dictate the end outcome.  Given time and effort that initial sense of unfairness might be overcome given the right conditions to demonstrate that some sense of fairness or justice can be delivered.

Research Source:

California Institute of Technology (2010, February 24). Scientists find first physiological evidence of brain’s response to inequality. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 26, 2010, from  /releases/2010/02/100224132453.htm


By Steven G. MehtaSteve Mehta











On many playgrounds, you will often hear the phrase “that’s not fair.”  Those three words also have a huge impact in dispute resolution.  That is because the principle of fairness is often overlooked. 


Fairness is hardwired.


First, and foremost it is important to understand that the concept of fairness is hardwired into our brains.  Several recent neuropsychological studies have discovered that the belief that things should be fairly apportioned or divided is an emotion that is built into the brain and not just a cultural norm.  One study conducted by researchers at Stanford and the University of Illinois found that there are different parts of the brain that respond to concepts of fairness and equity.  As one of the researchers, Brian Knutson from Stanford explained, “When people see an unfair offer, they actually have a negative emotional reaction to it…They have a visceral reaction to unfairness.” 


Another study from UCLA also found similar results.  Participants were asked to divide a certain sum of money in any way that they wanted between themselves and another person.  The second person could only accept the sum or reject the sum.  There was no negotiation.  The study found that regardless of the dollar amounts at issue, the participants were much happier with fair offers and much more disdainful of deals that were lopsided or unfair.  Just as with the Stanford study, they did brain scans of the participants and found that different areas of the brain were activated when dealing with fair and unfair offers. 


Studies in the sociological and employment context have also found interesting results that correlate fairness to the outcome of the action.    For examples, numerous researchers have found that employees respond both to what happens as well as how it happened.  In other words, “it’s not only what you do, it’s how you do it that counts.”  The researchers found that the level of negative emotions and anger was lower when the employees perceived that they were treated fairly.  Interestingly, anger towards unjust treatment was not reduced by monetary compensation. 


This principle is true in many cases in conflict.  Often the perceived unfairness of treatment by one of the parties long ago feeds the emotional anger of people during the dispute resolution process.  This is especially true, as the researchers suggest, when the people were in times of vulnerability and uncertainty, such as impending unemployment, problems with health due to injury, or the loss of a loved one. 


Research has also found that there is a direct relationship between trust and fairness of the process.  The more that people consider the process to be fair, the more likely they will be to trust the other party.  In turn, the more the person trusts the other person, the less they are concerned with the immediate economic consequence of the deal. 


Fairness And Dispute Resolution


First and foremost, do not act disrespectfully to the other person.  For example, several studies have shown that people who are treated unfairly or in a manner they deem as disrespectful are more likely to sue the people they perceive created the injustice. The desire for retribution (as opposed to monetary gain) is a common motivation for lawsuits.   Here, before the matter gets into litigation, it is important to try and utilize procedures that create as much fairness as possible.  For example, in the employment context, simple things such as regular reviews of performance, providing the opportunity to be heard by an independent person, providing a means to air a grievance, and using objective standards, can go a long way to creating an environment that is deemed fair.


Second, it is important to understand that, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Many cases can be avoided by being aware of the impact of the action on the other person.  Make sure to have good bedside manner.  Treat the person with respect, even when you are taking action that is detrimental to the person.  Provide the person with an opportunity to be heard and to explain his or her situation, even if your mind is made up. 


Let the other person be heard, even if that voicing of opinion won’t change the outcome.


Try to create opportunities to remedy the perceived injustice or disrespect that may have happened to the party.  Ask for the other person’s guidance and help as a means of allowing that person to let go of the issue.


As Frank Barron, the UC Berkeley professor,  stated, “never take a person’s dignity: it is worth everything to them, and nothing to you.”  Helping restore fairness costs you nothing, but can make a difference in helping resolve the dispute. 


By Steven G. MehtaSteve Mehta


According to a poll conducted by the Lake Research Partners of likely voters, that was published on April 29, 2009, Americans widely oppose mandatory binding arbitration clauses.   The survey reached 800 adults nationwide, 18 years or older, who are likely to vote in the 2010 elections. The overall margin of error is +/-3.5%.

The poll found that:

·         Six in 10 likely voters support the elimination of arbitration clauses unless the parties agree to arbitration after a dispute arises.

·         59 percent of likely voters oppose the use of mandatory binding arbitration clauses in employment and consumer contracts;

The poll results bolster support for the bipartisan Arbitration Fairness Act (H.R. 1020) that was introduced by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) in the House of Representatives.  The measure seeks to ensure that the decision to arbitrate is made voluntarily and after a dispute has arisen and not before.  The measure would virtually eliminate all pre-dispute arbitration clauses.  This measure comes on the heels of another similar proposal targeted towards the nursing home industry:  The Fairness in Nursing Home Arbitration Act (S. 512 / H.R. 1237).  S. 512/H.R. 1237 introduced by Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), would seek to eliminate arbitration clauses in all nursing home contracts.

Proponents say mandatory arbitration is quicker and cheaper than going to court.  In fact, more and more cases are going to arbitration and are eliminating the need to go through lengthy trials.  In support of such claims, One study reviewed 301 cases of consumer arbitration cases, all performed by the American Arbitration Association (AAA), and found consumers won some relief in 53.3% of the cases they filed and recovered an average of $19,255; business claimants won some relief in 83.6% of their cases and recovered an average of $20,648.

But critics contend the process isn’t always fair.  Critics of arbitration claim that the clauses are written by corporations to protect corporations and that it makes it harder to obtain a fair recovery for a wrong. Critics contend that although consumers may get results, they are usually much smaller than what would have been obtained by a jury.

These measures, if passed, could have a significant impact on the way justice is served.  First, many cases that are currently going to arbitration are not burdening the already overburdened court system.  As an example, California courts routinely favor sending cases to arbitration.  Currently, California’s judicial branch fields nine million filings annually, spread among more than 2,000 judicial officers, according to the state Administrative Office of the Court.  Given the budget woes that have besiged California, those judicial officers will be taxed even more.  If many cases that are now going to arbitration end back up in the courts, there could be further delays in the processing of those cases. 

On the other hand, such measures may end up giving the consumers more choices as to the method they would desire to resolve their dispute.  

In either case, these measures will be important ones to watch. 


The recent hostage crisis for Captain Richard Phillips simply shows the importance of negotiations in every aspect of life.  As you may recall, Captain Richard Phillips committed an act of utter bravery when he negotiated with the Somali pirates to release his crew.  He negotiated his life for theirs.  Thankfully, Captain Phillips was eventually able to escape successfully with the assistance of the Navy SEALS.  But Captain Phillips’ story as well as the attempts to negotiate his release clearly reveal that everybody needs to develop skills to properly negotiate.  We can actually take skills that are normally taught only to hostage negotiators and apply those skills to every day situations. 


Hostage negotiators often follow simple rules of engagement in any hostage situation. 

1.                  Establish Open Lines of Communication

Hostage negotiators understand that the first step in resolving a conflict is to open lines of communication.  This is done so that the parties can have a means of identifying needs, demands, and ways in which to resolve the crisis.  The same principle applies in negotiation.  It is important to establish rapport early in the relationship.  By establishing rapport, you can start to develop trust in the process, and in you. 

2.                  Identify the leaders

Before the real demands can be known, the hostage teams must know who to negotiate with.  Similarly, before any meaningful negotiations can take place, it is important to find out who the persons are with authority. 

      3.  Restore Calmness to the situation

Hostage negotiators recognize that while a perpetrator’s emotions run high, they will likely remain irrational in their decision making.  As such, they immediately try to restore calmness to the situation.   This principle is equally true in negotiations or mediation. When a person is emotional about an issue he or she will not be able to make proper demands, make real needs known, or perhaps not know the bottom line. A sophisticated negotiator must recognize that addressing emotions in the negotiation process is often the most important step to resolution.  By using active listening skills such as asking open ended questions, and letting the other person speak without interruption, you allow the party to vent emotions and to calm down. 

4.                  Gather Information about the Dispute

Once the heightened state of emotionality has been minimized, hostage teams attempt to identify the specific needs of the parties involved.  This process is also applicable in mediation.  Unlike in the prior stage, during this process, specific targeted questions can be asked of the parties as to their needs, and what would help to eliminate the problem.  By identifying a person’s needs and problems, the astute negotiator will now be given the opportunity to find potential solutions and what things are simply not negotiable.

To get all 7 hostage negotiation secrets that can be used in any negotiation, contact Steve Mehta and ask for him to email you his article Hostage Negotiation Secrets In Your Everyday Life.   

Steve’s Book

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