Deep historical and religious traditions may be at the root of many inviolable values, but an intriguing new study suggests that even relatively recent issues can quickly become sacred to a population. Psychologist Morteza Dehghani of Northwestern University and his colleagues asked 75 Iranians how they would feel about the possibility of Iran giving up its nuclear program, giving them four response options on disarmament ranging from “definitely needs to happen” to “shouldn’t be done no matter how great the benefits are.” Those who chose the latter were classified as treating the matter of Iran’s nuclear program as a sacred value.
After giving their opinions on Iran’s nuclear program, all participants were asked to consider one of two deals for Iranian disarmament. Half the participants read about a deal in which the U.S. would reduce military aid to Israel in exchange for Iran giving up its military program. The other half read about a deal in which the U.S. would reduce aid to Israel and would also pay Iran $40 billion. After considering these proposals, participants predicted how much the Iranian people would support the agreement and how much anger they would feel toward the deal. In line with Ginges’s studies, those who considered the nuclear program a sacred value expressed less support and more anger when the deal included money—even though that arrangement was objectively more beneficial to Iran. The other study subjects were more likely to appreciate the offer of aid.
The implication for international negotiation is clear: when a value becomes sacred, the rules change—offering money hurts instead of helps. Conflicts may be best resolved when both sides consider compromising something they hold dear. Choosing the right words may help, too—Tetlock’s studies have shown that emphasizing the dire, necessary nature of a trade-off can facilitate conflict resolution. For example, people are more willing to sell their body organs for medical transplants when told it is the only way to prevent deaths. Initially, selling organs feels like a violation, but that gut reaction changes when alternative sacred values are invoked: altruism and saving lives. Whatever the subject of discussion may be, when sacred values are on the negotiating table, it pays to understand the psychology of the taboo trade-off.
This article was originally published with the title A Taboo Exchange.