Posted on 28th February 2022 by Xpand

It really hurts when you’re wrong

Why do sensible people lose the ability to act rationally when they are in conflict? What makes some families tear themselves apart in petty squabbles so that family members don’t speak to each other for years? Why do neighbours blight their daily lives with bitter and confrontational disputes? And how can otherwise placid people become monsters when involved in road rage incidents – or even trolley rage in supermarkets?

The answer is one psychological phenomenon: self-esteem. It is one of the strongest motivating factors in conflict and it generates powerful emotions. We all have self-esteem; we all have a need to think well of ourselves, and for others to think well of us. Self-esteem governs many of the decisions we make daily, and we expend huge amounts of time and effort constantly maintaining and protecting our self-image. I was very struck by this in an early mediation. One party was an Asian gentleman who kept nipping out of our discussions, and I learned that he was ringing an elder to ask, if he agreed a certain point, would he keep his self-esteem in his community. That really mattered to him.

The other side of our desire for approval is our aversion to disapproval, or our dread of humiliation. Take the fear of public speaking, which that can be greater than fear of flying or spiders or dark places or whatever. It’s because the disapproval of each person in the audience constitutes a potentially significant attack on our self-image. The larger the audience, the more overwhelming the prospect of humiliation.

There is evidence showing the effect that attacks on our self-esteem have on the brain. One study showed that “social pain” activated the same circuits of the brain as physical pain. Consequently any attack on our self-image is interpreted by the brain as physical pain. When we speak of “hurt” feelings, we acknowledge that any form of censure, from slight criticism to outright condemnation or rejection, affects our self-esteem and is felt as physical pain – hence our aversion to admitting fault or accepting liability. The word “sorry” is one of the most difficult to express, despite it being the quickest, cheapest and most effective form of resolving a dispute. But our brain seems to tell us that saying sorry will be as painful as putting our hand in the fire.

The ability to monitor neural pathways helps us to see how our brain functions in conflict situations. For example, we now have a neurological explanation of our “fight or flight” instinct. This reflex is governed by the amygdala, part of the brain that controls our instinctive responses. Originally needed as a part of our evolutionary development (to flee from dinosaurs, for example!) they enabled us to act swiftly and instinctively in the face of physical attacks in the wild.

Today the amygdala can be triggered by any attack on our self-esteem. When the brain perceives a threat, whether physical or on our self-image, the amygdala takes control, diverting the signals away from the cortex, the “thinking” part of the brain. This “amygdala hijack” prevents us from engaging in logical or analytical thought, instead creating instant defensive reactions.

That is why we recoil at any allegation of fault, whether in business, within the family, behind the wheel of a car – or in the supermarket. It is an assault on our self-esteem, and it is painful. It is at these moments that we need to shrink our egos, to tell ourselves that our self-esteem is getting in the way, and that it is far more productive to try to see things from the other’s perspective.

Relevance to you as litigators

We know that lawyers love clients with high principles and deep pockets; the clients who would spend a fortune proving a point which is of little interest to others.

One of my recent mediations was the notorious boundary dispute (see my blog “Border Wars”) where neighbours argued over the exact dividing line along a shared drive. After a long and hard-fought day, we managed to agree the exact border, but the result was that one neighbour had a gatepost 10 inches on the other neighbour’s drive. And would he move it? No chance! Each side had already spent £10,000 on lawyers and surveyors to little effect, and now they faced a trial with estimated costs per side of £50,000. The loser could be expected to pay costs, and for mediation I reckon on some 70% being recoverable. On that basis, the losing party would have to pay their own costs of £60,000 plus £42,000, a total probably much higher than the equity they had in their home; they would have to sell up and maybe still go bankrupt. How daft is that? But, although I usually manage to settle my mediations, even after a bit of shouting, I could not get gatepost man to see sense. His self-esteem wouldn’t let him concede; his amygdala had taken over.

Now we know why. So what should we do about it? When a dispute becomes as entrenched as this, it may be too late; but you will do your clients so much good by persuading them that a concession can be a win. But do it early; once a client’s view becomes entrenched, and his amygdala has taken over, you’ve no chance!

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