Psychological Underpinnings of Successful Mediation

Study By: 
Marti Hope Gonzales - University of Minnesota
Ryan Gonzalez - University of Minnesota
Carrie Hunt - University of Minnesota 
An alternative to the traditional retributive justice paradigm reflected in the criminal justice system, the restorative justice paradigm is reflected in an increasing number of victim-offender mediation programs throughout the United States. The goal of this alternative to the criminal justice system is to bring offenders and victims together in a mediated exchange that includes dialogue, the negotiation of restitution, and often, reconciliation between the two parties. These programs differ from the criminal justice system in a number of important ways: (1) offenders are viewed as perpetrators of harm against another person, not the state; (2) victims, no longer passive observers of criminal proceedings, are actively engaged and involved in restoring justice and are thus empowered; (3) offenders learn the full extent of the harm their wrongdoing caused; and (4) the focus of mediation is on the future, rather than on the past, and offenders and victims work constructively to reach a mutually acceptable agreement for restitution. 
Practically speaking, the process of victim-offender mediation is relatively straightforward. After trained coordinators review select cases, victims who agree to participate typically meet first with a trained mediator to discuss their reactions to the offense and offenders, and then with both the mediator and offenders for a structured meeting in which victims speak directly to offenders, describing how the crime affected their lives, and proposing a restitution plan. Offenders are asked to imagine and to describe the impact of their crimes, and to work with victims to create a mutually acceptable restitution plan. 
The efficacy of victim-offender mediation has been demonstrated in a number of studies. For example, this problem-solving approach leads to victim satisfaction, perceptions of the restoration of justice, and decreases in emotional disturbances engendered by the crime. Offenders, too, benefit, with satisfaction with the process and outcome of mediation, and lowered recidivism rates. Unfortunately, the majority of such outcome research is descriptive and tends to focus on overall victim and offender satisfaction. For the most part, the psychological mechanisms underlying successful mediation and the moderators of the success of mediation have been ignored. 
Our goal is to employ an analog experiment in which participants in conflict with others are assigned at random to a wait-list control group, to a group that meets with a trained mediator to discuss reactions to the event or events that generated the conflict, or to both a one-on-one meeting with a mediator and a mediation session in which the parties in conflict discuss their reactions to the conflict and its origin, and work together to arrive at a mutually acceptable plan of mutual restitution. We intend to explore not only the personal and interpersonal benefits of participation, but also to determine what individual differences (e.g., belief in a just world) predict successful outcomes and what factors (e.g., conflict severity, psychological closeness between the two parties in conflict, the presence or absence of explicit apologies) might moderate the effects of mediation. Given research demonstrating the psychological and health benefits of writing or talking about adversity, as well as the efficacy of mediation, we anticipate that one-on-one meetings with mediators and structured conversations between the parties in conflict will yield benefits yet to be documented by researchers. 
As increasing numbers of community members take personal responsibility for restoring justice and resolving conflict through participation in mediation programs, it is essential not only to determine when and for whom such alternatives are beneficial, but also to elucidate the psychological mechanisms that underlie their success. This research project has the potential to do just that. 
The principal investigator for this project is Marti Hope Gonzales.