A study in which hundreds of Georgia neutrals participated by the Daily Report this year has found that an increasing number of them are incorporating neuroscience into their mediation practice to “reframe the conversations and promote reflection.”

Studying the ways in which chemical and neurological processes influence thought and behavior can, many neutrals say, help re-frame the conversation between disputants from ‘position’ to ‘interests.’  When disputants are stuck in the ‘positions’ stage of a conflict, each views the relationship in terms of what they and the other party want or need.  Often positions are opposing and there seems little overlap in which an agreement can be made.  Staking positions also triggers the “fight or flight” drive, governed by the brain stem.  What mediators desire is to move disputing parties into a “kinder, gentler, more evolved thinking,” governed by the rational part of the brain – the pre-frontal cortex.

The methods? The more mediators embrace psychological (and perhaps chemical – e.g. by spraying lavender in the mediation room) tactics to move their clients from a fight-or-flight state of mind to a calm and rational one, the more likely they are to be able to facilitate a satisfactory agreement for all parties concerned.

While spraying lavender in a virtual or online mediation environment is not the easiest task, perhaps some pre-mediation meditation is not such a crazy idea after all.  Other tactics that are as effective in online mediation as offline include shifting the focus of parties from their ‘claims’ or ‘wants’ to explaining the why behind these wants so that parties might be able to brainstorm other zones of agreement (perhaps non-monetary, or ‘intangible’ compensation for harm).

A potential benefit of online mediation over in-person mediation is also that many of the body language cues that trigger the fight-or-flight response from parties are missing, or can be excluded from an online environment if necessary (by the mediator eliminating video from a mediation in which parties are particularly hurt or angry at each other, for example).  In a text or voice-based mediation, a scoffing glance or the roll of the eyes can thankfully go unnoticed, and the parties might be more likely to enter a conciliatory phase than if had synchronous visual feedback from each other.

The Consumer Protections bureau for British Columbia has begun offering a pilot version of their Online Dispute Resolution platform, with the goal of improving the efficiency and lowering costs of settling disputes.  ODR is a way of conducting arbitration and mediation through the web, with all of the resources kept in a digital format, allowing for simple and asynchronous access, and efficient negotiation from anywhere.

The program is currently free, can be accessed at any time, and allows Consumer Protections BC to step in as a neutral third-party in specific situations.  Depending on the success of this program, plans are in the works to extend ODR to the Civil Resolution Tribunal to handle small claims cheaper and faster than if they were to go to court.  Success of the program in BC would provide a nice proving ground for the platform, to which other jurisdictions could look when developing their own ODR methods.

It is common knowledge these days that you exist all over the internet.  Each site you view, app you use, and company you deal with tracks you in different ways, building databases of information which help them develop more effective (and profitable) services.  While this data is often protected by privacy policies, these policies generally allow data to be shared with anyone, given certain steps are taken to anonymize the data.  However, as we mentioned in a previous post, Harvard Researcher Latanya Sweeney has recently shown that data can never truly be anonymized, but can be pieced together using other publicly available information to “fill in the blanks”.

This is unfortunate since mining big data can be incredibly useful, not just for maximizing profits, but for measuring larger social trends and analyzing regional health concerns.  So how can we analyze data without sacrificing privacy, when traditional anonymization does not cut it? One solution is through harnessing differential privacy.  With differential privacy, whenever data is transferred between parties, it is randomly altered in ways which do not change how the database behaves statistically, but provides a mathematical limit on the probability of identifying any one entry.   That limit is the database’s privacy score.

Currently, differential privacy is facing a number of mathematical hurdles including developing more efficient algorithms which require less computing time and ensuring that the random alterations to the database cannot be sniffed out.  Given the fractured state of American privacy law, even once these technical hurdles are surmounted, it will be difficult to have differential privacy become the norm.  Were it to succeed, this tool would be invaluable to wide-scale social research, with very promising implications in the fields of medicine, sociology, economics, etc.