I cannot think of a more pervasive and challenging obstacle to resolving conflict than the one captured in this amazing photograph that appeared in a recent brochure from the Rubin Museum in New York advertising a 2015 program of lectures titled Brainwave: The Attachment Trap. This accompanied the photo:

In South Asia monkeys are sometimes trapped by placing food in a secured vessel with a small opening. When a monkey slips his hand inside to grab the food, it soon discovers that its clenched fist is too large to pull out through the hole. The monkey will remain stuck clinging to the food until someone comes along and captures it.

This “attachment trap” is a metaphor for a core Buddhist principle: by holding on to external sources of happiness, we prevent ourselves from being truly free...

The attachment trap that plagues the monkey is the same problem at the heart of so many intractable conflicts that we struggle to resolve. Unlike the monkey, though, we have available to us a vast ability to reason – to take into account competing interests, assess risk, consider probabilities and so on. And yet, in spite of our evolutionary advantages, we wind up stuck doing things that keep us captive to positions that do not serve our interests and, all too often, do irreparable damage to ourselves and others.

We who work to resolve conflict deploy a range of metaphors and cliches designed to help people escape the attachment trap but they are frequently ineffectual. I think that many of these strategies ignore the underlying mash-up of emotions and rational thought and presume that people will change their position if only they are made to see reason. But how? There is a great deal of research that argues for a nuanced approach to conflict resolution– one that requires training and study. Unfortunately, we rely on flawed logic and arbitrarily invented ideas when we conclude that because a controversy resolves in a mediated negotiation it must be the result of something that we (mediators) say or do. I, for one, would like to see the conflict resolution business abandon metaphysics and embrace reason – neuroscience, psychology, social work, systematic observation, etc. – and undertake to find strategies, approaches and techniques that we can use with intention.