Conventional wisdom might lead one to believe that hiring a mediator who is charismatic and understanding would ensure favorable results for both parties, in a timely manner.  A recent study conducted by Ting Zang of the Columbia Business School and Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School suggests otherwise.

As reported in Antagonistic Mediators Can Make Resolving Disputes Easier, the researchers conducted six experiments in which the tone of the mediator was altered and ranged from nice to hostile.  Additionally, the researchers manipulated whether the mediator was hostile to one or both parties involved in the mediation.  The 96 test subjects were recruited through Mechanical Turk and randomly assigned a mediator who was nice, neutral, or hostile.  The hostile mediators behaved in a spiteful manner towards the negotiators whereas the nice mediators were significantly more helpful and lacked spite towards negotiators.

After reviewing the results of the test, the researchers realized a dominant trend: negotiations in front of hostile mediators more often achieved settlement than those negotiations that took place in front of nice mediators.  The main reason, the researchers believe, for this result is that the negotiators perceived that there was a common enemy.  Once a common enemy is perceived, the two negotiators, albeit in a dispute themselves, found a mutual dislike for the mediator and bonded as a result.  This allowed the dispute between the two to move from a boil to a simmer and an agreement to be achieved.  In short, it appears that the hostility from mediators “reduces perceived social distance between negotiators and increases negotiators’ propensity to reach agreement.”

The findings of this study are very similar to other studies that the researchers considered when reviewing their results.  For example, a study by Brock Bastian of the University of New South Wales and Jolanda Jetten and Laura J. Ferris of the University of Queensland looked at the bond created between individuals who endure physical pain together.  In their study, the participants had to move metal balls submerged in buckets of water into smaller baskets which were also under water.  The temperature of the water varied between participants, ranging from ice cold to room temperature.  The results of that study proved that individuals who endured the ice cold water felt a part of the group and a sense of loyalty to other participants who endured the same conditions.

When hiring a mediator, qualifications surely are important but this study has proven that a neutral and nice mediator may be much less effective than a mediator who appears to be brusque and hostile towards negotiating parties.  As proven by the researchers, mediators who appear to be hostile actually entice the negotiating parties to forge a bond between themselves and solve the dispute at hand.  Adding a common enemy between the negotiators, the hostile mediator requires the negotiators to rely upon each other to come to an agreement as opposed to being guided to the result by the mediator.  This new outlook on mediation may alter the tone  and increase the effectiveness of mediatiors in the future.

This summary was prepared for by Jonathan Doss, a second year student at the University of Missouri School of Law.