“Sacred Values” Crop Up in Conflict Management

By — on / Conflict Resolution

On November 24, the United States and five other world powers announced an interim agreement to temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear program. The six-month accord is meant to give international negotiators time to negotiate a more comprehensive pact that would remove the threat of Iran producing nuclear weapons.

The talks had reached an impasse in early November, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani insisted on his nation’s “right” to enrich uranium, as reported by Frank Rose in the New York Times.

“National interests are our red line,” Rouhani insisted.

Western officials were confused by Iran’s unwillingness to budge. After all, they were dangling what should have been a tempting carrot: the promise of lessened sanctions, which would provide significant financial relief to Iran. Yet the strategy of offering financial incentives in exchange for a concession related to national interests may have backfired, Rose reports, and psychological research on “sacred values” explains why.

In negotiation, virtually all of us have certain sacred values on which we are unwilling to compromise. Those values can be political, religious, or personal. When sacred values are in play, studies show, any proposal of economic incentives to make a deal is liable to backfire. And for the Iranian leadership, nuclear power appears to have become such an issue.

In the 1990s, psychologists Jonathan Baron and Philip Tetlock, both now at the University of Pennsylvania, found in their research that people who otherwise would be willing to alter their behavior in exchange for financial rewards (such as performing a job or task for pay) may suddenly refuse to do so when moral or ethical issues are highlighted.

For example, a marketing expert who advocates for gun control might refuse to take the National Rifle Association on as a client. Tetlock notes that “even to suggest such a trade-off is to invite moral outrage, along with feelings of contamination and a need for moral cleansing,” writes Rose in the Times.

Conflicts over sacred values can often be alleviated by separating discussions of moral issues from those that concern money and finances.

Take the results of a 2004-2008 field study of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict conducted by researchers Jeremy Ginges (New School for Social Research), Scott Atran (University of Michigan), Douglas Medin (Northwestern University), and Khalil Shikaki (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research), described in the article “Break Down ‘Sacred Barriers to Agreement” in the April 2009 issue of the Negotiation newsletter.

The team surveyed three groups of West Bank and Gaza citizens with strong opinions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Jewish Israeli settlers, Palestinian refugees, and Palestinian student supporters of Hamas.

The respondents were presented with a proposal that would require their side to make a concession on a key issue in exchange for lasting peace in the region. For example, the Israeli settlers were given a proposal that would require Israeli withdrawal from 99% of the West Bank and Gaza in return for peace.

Would financial incentives sweeten the pot? To the contrary, Israelis and Palestinians alike were outraged when significant economic assistance for their side was added to the peace proposals; they were repulsed by the notion of trading sacred values for money.

The team found a chink in their respondents’ moral logic when they added a different type of deal sweetener to the proposals: a difficult concession from the other side on one of its own sacred values. Suddenly, nonnegotiable positions softened.

The Israeli settlers agreed to make concessions is Hamas and other Palestinian groups explicitly accepted Israel’s right to exist, for instance.

“As the West Bank is to Israelis and Palestinians, nuclear power is becoming to many Iranians,” writes Rose in the Times. Influential parties have succeeded in linking the issue to a foreign exploitation of Iran’s oil resources, thus framing the nuclear issue as a matter of national pride.

In the end, the United States rejected Iran’s claim to having a “right to enrich” but agreed to allow Iran to continue to enrich at a low level. Whether the parties will be able to come to a long-term agreement on Iran’s “right” to enrichment remains to be seen.

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