Common to both of these cases is that the research focused on values rooted in deep historical and religious traditions. However, Dehghani’s study demonstrates how this pattern of behavior has emerged for the Iranian Nuclear program, a relatively new development. In this study, the researchers asked 75 Iranians how they would feel about the possibility of Iran giving up its nuclear program, giving them four response options ranging from disarmament “definitely needs to happen” to disarmament “shouldn’t be done no matter how great the cost.” Those who chose the latter response option were classified as treating the issue of Iran’s nuclear program as a sacred value whereas those who chose other options were not.
After giving their opinions on Iran’s nuclear program, all participants were asked to consider one of two deals for Iranian disarmament. Half of the participants read about a deal in which the United States would reduce military aid to Israel in exchange for Iran giving up its military program. The other half of the participants read about a deal in which the United States would reduce aid to Israel and would pay Iran $40 billion. After considering the deal, all participants predicted how much the Iranian people would support the deal and how much anger they would feel toward the deal. In line with the Palestinian-Israeli and Indonesian studies, those who considered the nuclear program a sacred value expressed less support, and more anger, when the deal included money.
A more successful tack for negotiating over sacred values, as it turns out, is to simply use the right words. Whether discussing nuclear disarmament or reluctance to sell one’s lucky mug at a garage sale, using specific rhetorical strategies can make trade-offs seem less taboo and can facilitate conflict resolution. Tetlock and other psychologists have experimentally tested a number of strategies to demonstrate their effectiveness. One tactic is to describe tradeoffs in terms of “costs and benefits” and “analysis” rather than in terms of sacred values and money. This vague utilitarian language appears to mask the emotion-laden taboo nature of the exchange. Another strategy is to emphasize the dire, obligatory nature of the trade-off. For example, people are more willing to sell their body organs for medical transplants when told it is the only way to save lives because this framing posits the exchange as one sacred value for another. In an age where many of the most volatile conflicts stem from sacred causes, and politicians have questioned effectiveness of diplomacy, understanding how to best negotiate about these issues has never been more critical.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize–winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com