Friday, December 18, 2009

Congress-Please Wake Up on Climate Change

Congress, please wake up. Climate change is here, it's real, and it's about to hammer us if we don't take immediate action. I know that Detroit is suffering from 50% unemployment. I know that there are not many other happy places in the U.S. economically. I happen to live in one of the deepest poverty regions of the country, the San Joaquin Valley. However, the depression will pass. Climate change will not pass and is apparently not subject to economic cycles. If we, as a nation, do not take leadership on this, we could be facing the mother of all economic depressions a lot sooner than anyone expects.

I appreciate the fact that Representatives must face re-election every two years and that their job security rests on their ability to convince the voters in their districts that they are protecting local financial, economic, and legal interests. The larger problem of climate change calls for a different type of  leadership, however. Instead of reacting to your neighbors, friends, and supporters at home, can you, members of Congress, unify and lead those people? Can you educate yourselves on the facts, not the polemics, of climate change? Can you be public stewards and resist insistent, parochial demands for quick fixes, jobs, money, safety, and security? Can you help the people accept the need for dramatic changes in energy use when the medicine tastes bad? Can you look at the problem of climate change in terms other than a zero-sum, distributive, winner-take-all political competition or negotiation? Can you instead look at climate change as an opportunity to collaborate, to invest in new technologies, to create jobs that have never existed before, and to rebuild our national infrastructure? Can you resist the lobbyists for the extraction industries that seek to continue business in the same patterns that have created the environmental crisis we now face? Can you face up to the fact that this is not Republican vs. Democrat political gamesmanship?

If you cannot, the conflicts, fights, disputes, and wars will be like none you have ever seen as people around the world fight for food,water, and arable land. If you cannot, the depression of 2007-2010 will seem like a mild economic correction compared to the potential devastation of a collapsed world economy. If you cannot, the plaintive cries of your constituents will turn to screams of anger at you, demanding that you answer why you did not take action sooner. Look into the future. You can see what is coming--it is a locomotive heading right at us. Will you slow it down or will you allow it to crush us all?

Please wake up and take action.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Anger and Fear Affect Our Perceptions and Our Decisions

We have all experienced levels of anger and levels of fear in mediation, and we have witnessed our clients in fear and in anger. What effects do these emotions have on us, the way we receive and communicate information, and on the way we make decisions?

Neuroscientists tell us that most of our behaviors and decisions are driven by evolution and by habit. Cognitive control originating in the pre-frontal cortex let's us direct our behaviors and make decisions to achieve longer term goals in unique situations. However, the metabolic cost is so high, we reserve this cognitive, conscious control to truly unusual situations where habit will not work so well. Without getting too technical, the right pre-frontal cortex has some ability to suppress anger and fear, but not a lot. It is quickly overwhelmed if other parts of the brain are supercharged with activity (e.g., high emotions). The ventromedial pre-frontal cortex is the seat of our value signals and is activated by the things we like. This part of the brain turns down when facing losses and turns up when facing gains.  Not surprisingly, people demonstrate a high variability of impulse control around gains and losses--some are disciplined, many are not.

How do fear and anger fit into this picture? Anger turns down the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex so that we tend to take more risks. The evolutionary biologists hypothesize that this gives us a greater perception of individual control that, in turn, gives us sufficiently more confidence to work, fight, or run our way out of difficult situations. What is even more amazing, is that we don't have to feel angry for this effect to take place. Residual effects of anger can last for hours. If your client had an angry moment with a spouse or child in the morning before the mediation, his or her ventromedial pre-frontal cortex will still be turned down at the mediation. Your client could look as cool as a cucumber, and still not have clear decision-making processing working in the brain. A great example of this is how President Obama handled negotiations with Chrysler executives one morning. Earlier, he had become angry over reports of the Air Force One flyover of Manhattan for photo-ops. He had cooled down by his late morning meeting with the Chrysler people. However, they did not walk away with the deal they wanted. It's very likely that his earlier anger made his risk assessment of a Chrysler bankruptcy different than what he might have assessed with a calmer morning.

Another effect of anger is to increase confirmation bias. This well-known distortion in decision-making says that we will tend to seek information that confirms earlier beliefs and ignore or discount information that is inconsistent fwith earlier beliefs. Anger intensifies the confirmation bias so that we cannot hear information about weaknesses in our case.

Fear, on the other hand, works much differently. Fear tends to make us overestimate risks due to a greater perception of situational control. In other words, in a fear condition, our brains tend to view the world as controlling events, not ourselves as individuals. With a lower sense of control, we tend to look at risky decisions conservatively.

Since the pre-frontal cortex is a metabolic hog, we lose self-control over fear and anger over time. Our loss of control is caused by cognitive energy depletion in the brain, and eating carbs will not boost energy right away. We have all seen tempers flare, positions become more entrenched, and cooperation flag later in the mediation. This is simply the effect of tired, energy-depleted brains.

One of the many reasons mediation is so useful is that the mediator becomes the pre-frontal cortex in the room. Mediators provide the cognitive functioning that is lost in the emotions of anger and fear and provide a functioning brain when everyone else's brains are in in low energy states. Anger and fear are normal experiences in conflict and in litigated disputes. Understand how these emotions affect perceptions and decisionmaking and you will have a greater insight into the negotiation.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Is Democracy Promotion the Answer?

I think it is time to re-examine both the realist and liberal theories of international relations. First, both are based on flawed assumptions of human nature and behavior. Second, neither theory takes into account cognitive biases, belief structures in the human brain, the human fear response system and the myriad of other discoveries about behavior. Instead, both the realists and liberals assume rational, self-interested players. For example, the idea of democracy promotion assumes that every human would rationally prefer to live under an elected form of government. Maybe, maybe not. I argue that a more sophisticated perspective is needed. Democracy promotion sounds good, moral, and right. In the absence of context, however, it is a meaningless policy that universally applied is doomed to fail miserably. Let us look at each country, nation, and region which we wish to assist and determine whether the population is emotionally prepared, sufficiently motivated, and cognitively aware enough to succeed at a democratic experiment. If not, let's decide how to help them prepare themselves for democracy. Let us determine whether there are leaders sufficiently developed to take on the ambiguities, uncertainties, and anxieties of democratic governance. In the meantime, we can encourage development of local rule of law to create simple property and contract rights and create a sustainable local economy. Without this deeper inquiry, we and the people we wish to help will suffer in frustration and failure.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Obama and Realpolitik- A Peacemaker's Perspective

The challenge we face in being outside the confidential circle of President Obama is that it seems difficult to discern what is happening privately and quietly and what is for public consumption. Middle East historian Mark Levine seems to suggest that we measure the effect of the Nobel Peace Prize on President Obama's observable actions and policies. I think Obama will be smarter and more nuanced in his approach. I doubt we will see huge policy shifts overnight as Levine suggests would be consistent with the Peace Prize and inconsistent with American domestic and foreign policy. Instead, over the months and years of the Obama administration, I suspect we will subtle changes, adjustments, and policies that can influence and steer rather than dictate and control. Obama will face his ethical dilemmas of being a Nobel Peace Laureate and being president of the United States. Those dilemmas will be challenging, and I suspect he will manage them quietly and deftly. Mostly, we will not know about them or how they are resolved. I think historians will have a lot more to say in ten years than they can say today.

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