Accentuate the positive: studies reveal human propensity for reframing to see good in outcomes

Reframing transforms perceptionMediation can help individuals in conflict gain new perspective, bringing fresh insight and understanding of each other and the underlying conflict.

To enable disputants to see things differently, mediators utilize a technique called “reframing” to assist parties to redefine the way in which they understand or conceive of a problem. Bernie Mayer said it best: “The art of reframing is to maintain the conflict in all its richness but to help people look at it in a more open-minded and hopeful way.”

As it turns out, humans already possess a great capacity for seeing things in a more positive light. Those of you who are fascinated by the mysteries of human behavior will find much to ponder in two studies described in this article from the Wall Street Journal which xamined the human propensity to interpret negative outcomes in the most positive light possible.

Most of us would safely assume that we would recognize immediately when an outcome resulted which we did not intend, particularly when that outcome is not our desired one. But a study on decision-making, conducted by researchers at Lund University, challenged that assumption. Subjects were convinced that those less desirable outcomes were the ones they had actually intended, despite the evidence of their own senses.

In addition, research conducted by Professor David Gilbert of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University reveals that our brains “strive to provide the best view of things”. In tests performed using optical illusions in which an object can be perceived in any number of ways, when humans were rewarded for seeing one particular view of that object, they were no longer able to perceive the object’s other views. In other words, we are hard-wired to see things in the best and most rewarding light possible. For further details, read Professor Gilbert’s online article at

This ability to see the best view of events and objects obviously helps us as humans build resiliency and adapt to change, particularly when that change is difficult. It undoubtedly aids us when we are faced with conflict. Reframing comes naturally to us.

(This does raise some intriguing questions for mediation practice. Do we do good or harm when we assist parties in reframing their conflict? Should mediators be wary of exploiting the human susceptibility to see intention and choice in unintended outcomes, to see the positive in less than optimal results? Or does reframing innocuously and simply draw upon our natural propensity to seek the view that is most rewarding and ultimately lead people to optimal choices? And what do these studies suggest about choice and informed decision-making on the part of disputants at the table?)

Ethical questions for mediators aside, Professor Gilbert’s article on his studies includes a link to a brilliant animated version of Necker’s cube, a mind-boggling optical illusion, courtesy of Mark Newbold, which shows how many different ways there are of seeing something. While you’re on that page, be sure to follow the link to, a web site featuring one of the best collections of optical illusions I’ve ever seen.

(With thanks to Brad Spangler and his excellent article on reframing at For a different perspective on reframing, download David Hoffman’s article, “Mediation and the Meaning of Life” (in PDF format), originally published in the Summer 2005 edition of Dispute Resolution Magazine.)

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