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Conflict Resolution’s Enemy: The Amygdala

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Reptile-Brain-gini-foundationOne of the most important conflict resolution lessons that I've learned from helping people with nearly a dozen lawsuits and from studying many books about human behavior is this: When it comes to human behavior, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

In "What is Justice?", I wrote about a toxic lawsuit between two friends, which spilled into my life, causing a secondary dispute between one of the combatants and me. From my perspective, I felt exploited, which created an emotion of anger that was incomprehensible to the other person because they believed I should have given them my unconditional support, regardless of the costs.

Conversely, their deep emotion of injustice from their other primary dispute compelled them to prioritize their lawsuit above virtually all other factors in life. Their decision-making process was incomprehensible to me because I could see many other factors that should have been taken into account before they launched a toxic lawsuit. In both cases, our emotional perceptions of the world were incomprehensible to each other.

Why were these emotions mutually incomprehensible? Because human behavior is one of the most complex dynamics in human existence. Basic emotions like fear, anxiety, sadness and happiness are produced by the amygdala (aka the "reptile brain"), which is the result of millions of years of human evolution. When already-existing stress and emotions are amplified by a toxic dispute, the amygdala's fight-or-flight mechanism takes over and distorts every human's perception of reality. No human is immune to this biological phenomenon.

That's why lawsuits are so dangerous: Lawsuits are not merely about facts, logic and objective reality; rather, they are primarily about the unpredictable emotions and subjective perceptions of the fallible humans involved. This is why they often become never-ending legal wars with many unexpected and unintended consequences.

More precisely, based on my observations, lawsuits are driven by approximately 70% emotion and 30% facts and logic. This is why many lawsuits drag on for years, wasting obscene amounts of time and resources. It's also why the lawyers are usually the biggest winners.

Human emotions obliterate facts and logic in ways that people usually can't perceive until they distance themselves from the source of their stress and pain long enough for their cerebral cortex to take back control from their amygdala. This process can take days, weeks or months (or never), depending on numerous environmental conditions, mental habits, levels of serotonin in the brain, blood sugar levels, financial stress, the lifestyle patterns that a person is exposed to on a daily basis, and many other factors.

That's why when it comes to human behavior, nothing is ever as simple as it seems when you're looking at the world only through your own eyes. And trying to blame other people for a dispute almost never resolves anything because emotions always distort a person's perception of reality, which triggers righteous indignation and causes them to dig in their heals more. That's why the key to resolving any dispute is understanding the fundamental biological and psychological mechanisms that cause virtually every human dispute.

After we recognize these fundamental dynamics of human behavior, it's much easier to transcend all the emotional drama. This enables us to make better decisions to achieve a more peaceful and prosperous life; a more harmonious and productive organizational culture; and more stable, productive and peaceful societies.

See also: The Monkey Trap of Human Nature

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