Limits of Rationality in Decision Making

Michelle Maiese

Originally published July 2005, Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in July 2017

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

This was one of the articles that I expected to be fairly out of date, but when I just re-read it , now twelve years after it was published, I still find what it says to be both true and valuable. The only major new knowledge that is not included here is the role that biology plays in the way we process information, determine who our friends and opponents or enemies are, make decisions, and engage in conflict. More...

Much of the conflict resolution literature presents an image of disputants as rational actors who are focused on pursuing their long-term interests, unaffected by their emotions. The "realist" approach suggests that all conflict involves material interests, while the rationalist approach suggests that conflict is the outcome of conscious intentions. [1] The idea seems to be that if parties rely solely on logic, both sides can advance their interests and come to a mutually acceptable compromise in the event that those interests conflict. Any emotional and relational factors should be set aside so that the political and economic interests that are central to the conflict can be addressed. Feelings of humiliation, shame, fear, and anxiety are viewed as obstacles to rational thinking and as a sign of vulnerability. [2]

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Once parties have identified their deep-seated concerns and interests, they can make trade-offs and concessions and work together to devise creative solutions to their problems. Rationality helps them to explore their various interests and options, identify their zone of possible agreement, and find a way a way to compromise. According to the widely-accepted conception of means-ends rationality, a rational act is one that uses the most efficient means to achieve a given end. [3] Classical economic theory, for example, describes individuals as "hyper-rational." [4] They make decisions by gathering and processing information and then acting in a manner that maximizes utility.

However, an approach to conflict that over-emphasizes rationality may obscure the fact that disputants in conflict are often influenced by unconscious motives and guided by the emotions of anger, fear, distrust, and shame. Protracted conflict, in particular, is often a result of parties' lack of self-knowledge, disturbances in communication, and unacknowledged feelings about their relationship. [5] Insofar as strong emotions typically play either a positive or negative role in the way parties wage conflict and attempt to negotiate solutions, emotions have a profound influence on dispute management as well. Conflict and its resolution are driven not only by the pursuit of instrumental goals and rational interests, but also by desires for less tangible things such as love, recognition, and a sense of belonging.

Are Negotiations Guided by Rationality?

Most of the training literature for negotiation and mediation suggests that emotions should be ignored and that third party interveners should guide disputants toward rational behavior. [6] However, it is doubtful that the rational thought processes and decision-making that occurs during negotiation can function independently of the emotions. [7] Indeed, strong emotions are typically part of the negotiation process and may cause negotiations to break down if they are not dealt with properly. Feelings of fear, mistrust, and anger, for example, often interfere with effective negotiation by clouding parties' judgment, narrowing their focus of attention, and distracting them from their substantive goals. [8]

For a settlement to be reached, it is not necessary that parties overcome all obstacles or address all of their concerns. There simply need to be enough incentives to motivate them to consent to the proposed agreement. Note that not all of these incentives are ones that figure into cost-benefit analysis or rational assessment. While it is true that disputants typically rely on rationality to assess the gains and losses associated with a proposed settlement, it seems clear that psychological rewards and disincentives likewise play a role. In addition to financial considerations and material interests, there are intangible considerations that may weigh in favor of settlement or against it. [9] For example, the emotional benefits and losses that may be anticipated as a result of settlement include recognition, revenge, honor, distrust, anger, and embarrassment. Other intangible considerations include the thoughts and feelings of the disputants about their relationship.

In many cases, disputants are not even reflectively aware of these emotional and relational factors. Unacknowledged threats to relational bonds result in shame can set the stage for insult, humiliation, and revenge. [10] These hidden emotional factors may make coming to a settlement seem unfavorable even when such an agreement would best serve parties' material interests. Indeed, if emotions are high, disputants are likely to be antagonistic in response to anything the other side proposes. Negative emotions thus may lead parties to neglect their instrumental goals.

Conflicts that are relatively intangible are those rooted in the dynamics of history, religion, culture, and values. Because these conflicts "arise from the depths of the human heart rather than the material world," it is difficult to determine their parameters and boundaries. [11] When these conflicts continue for a long time, parties' goals tend to extend beyond advancing their concrete interests to include upholding their dignity and prestige. Conflicts rooted in underlying value differences, identity issues, or unacknowledged emotions cannot be addressed in the same way as disputes over tangible resources. According to Jay Rothman (1997), trying to use common modes of bargaining to address conflicts that are poorly defined or intangible often proves to be inadequate.

Marc Gopin (2002) recommends that political negotiations to manage such conflicts be accompanied by efforts to address religion, culture, moral commitments, and the transformation of relationships. In his view, building peace requires more than political settlements and rational agreements. It requires groups' ability to address the cultural and spiritual dimensions of conflict and deal with their feelings of humiliation, dishonor, and grief. Systems of mourning and coping with ultimate loss should be brought into the realm of peacemaking. Gopin believes that in addition to addressing the conflict's substantive political issues, we should work to foster healing and reconciliation.

Understanding Conflict Escalation

In addition, an over-emphasis on rationality will limit our understanding of conflict escalation. Under certain circumstances, such as when one party has overwhelming power over its opponent, escalation is the rational thing to do. It makes sense to use one's power to overcome the opponent's resistance or to intentionally escalate the conflict in order to gain more leverage. [12] In these cases of tactical escalation, where parties make a rational choice to intensify conflict, they may actually be able to improve the conflict situation. However, escalation more commonly occurs without the parties having a full understanding of the situation or considering alternative courses of action. When conflict is driven by feelings of anger, fear, and perceived injustice, parties may overreact to the situation at hand and conflicts may spiral out of control. For example, sometimes individuals will perceive a grave threat, even though the situation is not actually as dangerous as they think it is. While there may be no real cause for anger or intense fear, these feelings may take over and lead to aggression. Actions that are seen as extreme or overly severe may then provoke outrage from the other side and cause conflict to become unnecessarily violent and destructive. [13] Overcome by hostility or a desire for revenge, the parties may develop grandiose positions that are unrealistic and unreasonable.

The intensification of conflict is typically accompanied by significant psychological changes among the parties involved. In addition to feelings of anger and fear, parties tend to develop stereotypes, negative attitudes, and mistaken perceptions of the other side. There is a tendency to misinterpret the behavior of one's opponent or to assume that the intentions and basic dispositions of one's enemy are always fundamentally "evil." Even when an adversary makes some conciliatory actions or attempts to make some concessions, this conduct is likely to go unnoticed, or to be discounted as deceptive. [14] These mechanisms of attributional distortion and selective perception are not fully rational, and yet they influence much of the destructive behavior we see in value and identity conflicts. Indeed, parties may become so hostile and aggressive that they that may come to believe that the only way to resolve their conflict is to destroy the other side and make the other group just "go away" or "disappear." It is these extreme attitudes that often result in genocide, war, and terrorism, many instances of which result in great harm to oneself or one's group. Indeed, the injury that people sometimes undergo so that they can cause harm to their "enemies" suggests that people caught in conflict often act for reasons which defy rational calculations of self-interest. A failure to address these non-rational, social-psychological dimensions of conflict makes it difficult to account for why ordinary people engage in such destructive and violent acts.

Non-Rational Modes of Conflict Resolution Knowledge

Focusing solely on rationality may also cause us to overlook some of the important ways that people come to learn about ways to manage conflict. The conflict resolution field emphasizes research, training, and study as primary avenues for the development of knowledge. Through analysis and the application of various theories, practitioners can learn how to synthesize different approaches and apply resolution procedures to concrete conflict situations. Many people believe that knowledge gained through rational thinking and book learning should serve as the field's focus. However, some theorists have begun to recognize that everyday, commonsense understandings of conflict play a central role in the process of learning how to manage conflict. Rather than being developed through scholarly study, folk knowledge is acquired through intuition and experience and embedded in cultural traditions. This awareness of how to manage conflict is a skill that people develop through everyday activity rather than through reflection and textual analysis. According to Paul Wehr (1998), this sort of knowledge evolves from generation to generation and emerges wherever human beings try to live together and get along in everyday life. [15] Children receive a great deal of this knowledge from their parents, elders, and social surroundings.

Stories, poetry, and rituals are likewise important sources of conflict resolution knowledge. Narratives allow people to gain insight into the perspectives and experiences of others and understand the motives and intentions behind their behavior. Similarly, poetry can help parties to identify their grievances, raise understanding about conflict dynamics, and move them toward reconciliation. In addition, participating in rituals often allows people to gain a deeper sense of what sorts of relationships they would like to build. Instead of emphasizing words or rational thought, ritual involves symbols, senses, and non-verbal communication. Through informal social activities as well as more formal cultural and religious ceremonies, parties tap into their emotions and learn how to wage conflict in more constructive ways. According to Lisa Schirch (2005), ritual offers parties an opportunity to interact in a space that is set apart from the conflict so that they can begin to develop a shared understanding of the challenges they face. Through art, ceremony, and symbolic activity, people who know little about the academic study of conflict resolution can gain knowledge about how to manage their conflict. In Schirch's view, efforts to approach conflict in an exclusively rational, analytical, and linear mode are insufficient. [16] This is because much of our knowledge about conflict is rooted in our emotions, worldviews, and cultural understandings.

The imagination is yet another source of conflict knowledge that is not strictly rational. According to John Paul Lederach (2005), the capacity to recognize possibilities and envision constructive change does not emerge through the careful application of pre-established techniques. Instead, conflict transformation tends to come about through something that approximates an artistic process. [17] These "ah-ha" moments in which valuable insights surface are more like moments of aesthetic imagination than rational examination. Lederach thus views peacebuilding as an art form that requires creativity, constant innovation, and the ability to get to the heart and soul of conflict.

Current Implications

This was one of the articles that I expected to be fairly out of date, but when I just re-read it , now twelve years after it was published, I still find what it says to be both true and valuable. The only major new knowledge that is not included here is the role that biology plays in the way we process information, determine who our friends and opponents or enemies are, make decisions, and engage in conflict. 

Neuroscience (including neurobiology, psychology, and economics) suggests that people's brains are genetically predisposed to react to stimuli in particular ways, and of importance here, respond to conflict in largely preset (but still changeable) ways.  

This research shows, for example, that some people (often called traditionalists or conservatives) are more sensitive to fear and uncertainty than liberals; they seek order, structure and certainty to minimize change and risk. They form tighter in-groups, are more wary of outsiders, and are more willing to follow a strong leader without question. Liberals, on the other hand tend to be more open to new things.  Their brains are hardwired to accept uncertainty and cognitive complexity more easily; they are more willing to take risks and are more open outsiders and to change. [18]

These predispositions, along with other neuropsychological biases, make conflicts between liberals and conservatives almost inevitable.  But they need not be permanent nor destructive. If these neuro-biological tendencies are understood and worked with--along with the more "rational" socio-economic and political drivers of conflict--such conflicts still can be transformed into something constructive. 

Jonathan Haidt famously likened emotions to an elephant and rationality to its rider.  The rider is at best in tenuous control.  If anything unexpected happens, the elephant (that is, one's emotions and "built-in" genetic emotional predispositions) will take off an do whatever it (they) want.[19]

For this reason, neuroscience research makes it extremely clear that conflict resolution and peacebuilding strategies that ignore these differences in thinking and emotional responses and demand or assume that disputants "act rationally,"  are of limited utility in emotionally-ladden intractable conflicts. They can actually make things worse.

In the Conflict Frontiers Seminar, we have three different posts that explain this further.  They are:

A useful article that explains and organizes 175 cognitive biasses (!) is the "Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet." I have a minor quibble with this artice: it refers to these biases as "flaws" in one's thinking--implying rationality is better and cognitive biases should be fixed. In some cases this is true, but overall it is impossible--we can't get rid of all our cognitive biasses because they are there for a highly adaptive reason--it makes it possible for us to deal with the complexity of the world.  Nevertheless, understanding where we are taking shortcuts helps us determine whether we need to take the long route to a goal at times.

Heidi Burgess, July, 2017

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[1] Suzanne Retzinger and Thomas Scheff, "Emotion, Alienation, and Narratives: Resolving Intractable Conflict." Mediation Quarterly 18(12)(2000-2001); <>.

[2] Daniel L. Shapiro, "Negotiating Emotions," in Conflict Resolution Quarterly, (20:1, 2002), 68.

[3] Milton Rinehart, "Towards Better Concepts of Peace," Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado (2005); <>.

[4] Edward E. Ergenzinger, "Conversations with Phineas Gage: A Neuroscientific Approach to Negotiation Strategies,", <>.

[5] T. J. Scheff, Bloody Revenge: Emotions, Nationalism, and War, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000); <>.

[6] Suzanne Retzinger and Thomas Scheff, "Emotion, Alienation, and Narratives: Resolving Intractable Conflict." Mediation Quarterly 18(12)(2000-2001); <>.

[7] Ergenzinger

[8] Robert S. Adler, Benson Rosen, and Elliot M. Silverstein, "Emotions in Negotiation: How to Manage Fear and Anger," in Negotiation Journal, (14:2, 1998). Summary available at:

[9] Shiri Milo-Locker, "The Decision to Settle - Balance, Setoffs and Tradeoffs Between Rational, Emotional and Psychological Forces,", <>.

[10] Scheff, 2000, 3.

[11] Jay Rothman, Resolving Identity-Based Conflict in Nations, Organizations, and Communities, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), <>.

[12] Otomar Bartos and Paul Wehr, Using Conflict Theory. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 99.

[13] Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution. (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, Inc., 1998), 169, <>.

[14] ibid., 153.

[15] Paul Wehr, "The Development of Conflict Knowledge." <>.

[16] Lisa Schirch, Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding, (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, Inc., 2005), 35, <>.

[17] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Arts and Soul of Building Peace, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), <>.

[18] Mari Fitzduff, An Introduction to Neuroscience for the Peacebuilder.

[19] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis:  Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.Arrow. 2007.

Picture Credit for the Metagraphic:  NationaI Institutes for Mental Health  – Public Domain.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Limits of Rationality." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2005 <>.

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