The brain behavior that could be controlling your divorce: reactive devaluation.

2019-12-01-2

Would you support a drastic bilateral nuclear arms reduction program?

That was the question posed to pedestrians in the US back in the 1980s. The results were fascinating — and go a long way towards explaining why achieving a peaceful divorce settlement can be so very difficult.

A certain number of those surveyed were told the proposal for the program came from Ronald Reagan and of those, 90% said they'd support the proposal; they assumed that it would be favorable to the interests of the US. The number of supporters fell to 80% when they were told that the idea had come from a group of unspecified policy analysts. But when participants were told that the proposal originated with Mikhail Gorbachev, only 44% came out in favor of the program.

Those who opposed "Gorbachev's idea" naturally assumed that a proposal coming from the U.S.S.R would be inherently detrimental to the US.

And the reason? Reactive devaluation.

It's a study that's been replicated numerous times but you likely don't need a ton of scientific research to convince you of the prevalence of reactive devaluation in human behavior because you've seen it play out time and again in your own life:

·You've experienced it during meetings when a colleague you don't get on with shoots down a perfectly decent idea purely because you're the one suggesting it.

·When you're arguing with your kid, you know they're far more likely to tow the line if they think they're the one that came up with a solution.

·Your mother-in-law — who you can't stand — comes up with a fairly workable suggestion for the holidays but you refuse to play ball. You know it's petty but you can't bring yourself to let her "win".

And if you're in the midst of a divorce, you'll be especially familiar with the power of reactive devaluation and its power to make you want to automatically reject any suggestion your spouse puts forward. Luckily, your mediator is equally familiar with the phenomenon. Reactive devaluation is a constant presence in the mediation room — so every mediator must be trained in how to neutralize its effects to ensure that everyone gets a fair deal.

Why reactive devaluation is so hard to resist.

As with the other psychological principles we've looked at, like confirmation bias and reciprocation bias, reactive devaluation is hard-wired into your brain — which makes it incredibly difficult to recognize, and to resist.

We tend to approach conflict with a "winner takes all" mentality so it's natural to assume that any offer put forward by an adversary is going to favor them and short-change you. If you have a volatile relationship history, you naturally view any gains you stand to make as smaller and any concessions as larger. You're more inclined to be suspicious about what your "adversary" may be holding back — "loss aversion" kicks in and you refuse what is objectively a fair proposal because you're convinced there's a better deal to be done. It's impossible to view any offers objectively.

And when objectivity flies out the window, compromise becomes impossible and negotiations stall. Often at great cost to you both emotionally and financially.

Neutralizing the effects of reactive devaluation.

For many couples, engaging a neutral, third-party professional, like a mediator, is the key to working through these cognitive biases that stand in the way of achieving a successful divorce settlement.

Introducing hypotheticals.

One strategy for overcoming reactive devaluation is to neutralize it before it has a chance to rear its ugly head. A mediator may choose to float a number of hypothetical scenarios to the divorcing couple before any offers have been made. This gives both parties the chance to consider their theoretical settlement parameters in a more neutral way and gives the mediator a good grounding from which to make realistic and fair suggestions as talks progress.

Reducing the risk of reactive devaluation.

A skilled mediator can also avoid the risk of reactive devaluation by introducing any potential offers or proposals as their own — when the person receiving the offer believes it originated from a third party, they're far more likely to assess it objectively. And, when the offer has been considered objectively, the mediator, and the other party can continue with negotiations knowing that any concerns raised are legitimate, and not merely the result of reactive devaluation.

As hard as it is to resist, it's important that you find a way to overcome the effects of reactive devaluation. Not only do they have the potential to delay the finalization of your divorce proceedings but you might find that they can actually prevent you from achieving a successful outcome. Far too many people have lost out by shooting down a perfectly fair offer, simply because their ex was the one making it.

This is truly one of those situations in which knowledge is power. Knowing what these biases are, and how they might be affecting your divorce proceedings, will go a long way towards helping you rise above them.

If you need any advice or support as you navigate your divorce — and all of the cognitive biases that come with the territory — I'm here to help. Schedule an appointment today. 

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Saturday, 28 March 2020