It’s About the Brain: Jeremy Lack on the Neuroscience of Dispute Resolution

By Alice Albl

“You hear in movies ‘follow the money’; in my world I try to ‘follow the oxygen and glucose,’” neutral Jeremy Lack told an online group as a preface to his theory of mediation and resolution.

Lack presented his research at the latest installment of the Conversations in Conflict series hosted by the New York Law School’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Skills Program on Aug. 12.

Lack is a veteran practitioner, frequent lecturer, and member of three national bars along with being listed on several neutral panels, including the CPR Institute’s Panels of Distinguished Neutrals. Lack joked that he may be the world’s only quadri-national mediator, being a citizen of Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Israel, which may prevent him from being appointed if nationality is a consideration in the selection of neutrals.

Research being carried out at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences at the University of Geneva forms the basis for Lack’s TRI-O/S model, whereby the brain operates with faster and unconscious, emotional and social operating systems, which precede a slower, cognitive and rational operating system. 

These emotional and social networks serve as rapid triage systems, operating in milliseconds, to influence and shape conscious thinking and decision-making that will take place hundreds of milliseconds later. They are coordinated to minimize wasteful consumption of the brain’s limited resources: glucose and oxygen.

The TRI-O/S model looks at human behavior at three levels, or Operating Systems. “O/S 1” corresponds to emotional patterns of thinking, such as a flare of anger at an unreasonable offer or a rush of excitement when a resolution finally becomes apparent.

“O/S 2” are social patterns of thinking that explain such tendencies as biases, the desire for a comfortable sense of status, and a sense of belonging.

“O/S 3” are rational patterns of conscious thought and decision-making, but that can occur at different levels, such as reflexive (more frugal) thought processes or reflective (more wasteful) thought processes.  When we are tired or our resources are depleted by emotional and social considerations, the brain will be limited to rigid, reflexive pathways.

According to Lack, mediation participants tend to believe they are working mostly rationally, with O/S 3. Yet it is inevitable that the faster O/S’s 1&2 precede and influence what type of rational thinking is possible at the O/S 3 level. Emotions and social influences are always present, even if we are not aware of them.

In the fractional moments before any given cognitive decision is made, all three O/Ss will be activated, but O/S 1 and 2 will precede O/S 3, and influence which neural correlates will receive more oxygen and glucose–for example to avoid danger or obtain a reward. In terms of the limited resources consumed by these operating systems, this means that O/S 3 will always be last in line — granted only leftovers to cobble together into a rational thought.  We lack the ability to distinguish when we are thinking reflexively or reflectively.

Initial subjective stimuli will always affect mental activity and objectivity, and the capacity to think and take optimal decisions. Feeling stressed or treated unfairly will hinder cognitive abilities.  This theory supports the maxim that the more tired or angry a person is, the less rational they are likely to be.  The same is true for social influences, e.g., feeling excluded or treated unfairly.

Lack says he believes that other such maxims can be revisited using the TRI-O/S theory. Initial emotional stimuli (such as fear or reward) and social stimuli (such as feeling “in-group” as opposed to “out-of-group”) can activate different parts of the brain, leading to different patterns of downstream rational thought.

The amygdala, or anterior insula, may consume more oxygen and glucose in some situations than others, limiting the way the prefrontal cortex can be activated. The brain prefers to follow established networks of thinking that are partly genetically and partly environmentally shaped, which Lack calls “mental heuristics.”

A mental heuristic of the socially-oriented O/S 2 type that labels others as being “in-group” (e.g., a friend) switches on empathy circuits that are unavailable to people who have been labeled as “out-group” (e.g., strangers).  This triggers different forms of pro-social and anti-social patterns of behavior that are innate to all human beings. 

Fortunately, these networks are plastic and malleable, and skilled mediators can activate pro-social heuristics and weaken anti-social ones. This explains another piece of common knowledge — that humans are highly sensitive to the feelings of friends or loved ones, but can be equally cold and insensitive when it comes to the feelings of strangers or “others.”

The advantages of a shared meal with the parties the night before a mediation or conducting talks around a round, as opposed to a rectangular, table may seem slight, but they can trigger powerful “in-group” vs. “out-of-group” unconscious heuristics, which will greatly influence cognitive and rational capacities.

The greater ability to empathize generated by these small acts of behavioral priming can help stimulate cooperative behavior and weaken competitive behavior in ways that the O/S 3 is simply not aware of, greatly influencing the quality of rational thought, and the brain’s ability to be creative in finding better solutions for settlement.

As the online event drew to a close, an audience member asked whether the TRI-O/S model may do away with traditional conceptions of law and justice, instead tethering everything to biology and emotional or social instincts. Lack’s response was a shrug, noting, “We are still in the dark ages of understanding neurosciences and what is really happening in the human brain.  What I can say for the moment is that justice is not devoid of emotion or social influences.” He added, “The rule of law invokes a lot more subjective variables than we realize.”

But these variables may be understood and skillfully used by a mediator willing to apply neuroscientific approaches to trigger innate heuristics that can optimize group behavior and the quality and depth of thinking, focusing on possible mutual “rewards” as opposed to “losses.”

Lack encourages mediators to participate in and support research in this field and use its teachings to broaden their tools of practice.  He concluded by citing a recent article to be published in the September 2020 edition of Cortex magazine, which apparently demonstrates for the first time, with fMRI data in support, that mediation really does stimulate different thought processes in the brain as compared to negotiation, leading to higher settlement rates and higher satisfaction ratings. 

While the research was done on romantic couples, its findings should equally apply to commercial disputants. We are all using the same hardware. It is the operating systems we are running on them and how they interact with one-another that mediators can influence.

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For more on Jeremy Lack’s theory of ADR, see his 2012 publication with international mediator François Bogacz, “The Neurophysiology of ADR and Process Design: A New Approach to Conflict Prevention and Resolution?”, 34 Cardozo J. of Conflict Resolution [Vol. 14:33] 33-80 (2012) (available at https://bit.ly/3iKzMhV). For the new Cortex article describing the benefits of mediation over negotiation, see https://bit.ly/2YmfSlB. Recordings of NYLS’s Conversations in Conflict Resolution series, including Lack’s presentation, are available at https://bit.ly/2Fg5Mf9.

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The author, a CPR Institute Fall 2020 intern, is a second-year student at Brooklyn Law School in New York. This article was updated with clarifications and further explanation by Jeremy Lack on Aug. 21.

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