When Sacred Values Lead to An Ideological Impasse

Negotiations can come to a stand still when they run up against sacred values. But there are ways to break down barriers and reach agreement.

By — on / Conflict Resolution

sacred values

In October 2013, the two houses of Congress failed to reach agreement on appropriations funding for fiscal year 2014, triggering a government shutdown that lasted 16 days. The deadlock was rooted in the insistence of the Tea Party caucus of the Republican Party that the appropriations bill include language defunding President Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which was due to take effect January 1.Tea Party members framed their opposition to the ACA as a nonnegotiable expression of their sacred values.

“It is morally unacceptable for lawmakers in Congress to vote to fund the health-care law,” said Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Moderate Republican senators eventually backed down in the face of widespread blame, and the appropriations bill passed both houses despite continued opposition from the Tea Party.

Ideologically based standoffs such as the one over the ACA are among the most difficult to resolve, writes University of California at Los Angeles professor Corinne Bendersky in a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The very notion of compromising on our “sacred values”—such as our personal code of ethics or our religious and political beliefs—can threaten our self-image and sense of social identity. Unfortunately, impasse on a single issue can prevent negotiators from reaching a broader agreement that would benefit both sides.

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Sacred values or pseudo-sacred?

How might you persuade someone to be more flexible in a negotiation that concerns ideological issues? In one study, Israelis and Palestinians who held strong opinions about the conflict between their states became willing to negotiate on sacred issues when told that the other side was willing to make a difficult but symbolic concession, such as an apology for past suffering, Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research and Scott Atran of the University of Michigan found. The fact that such a compromise is possible suggests that our sacred values are sometimes actually “pseudo-sacred”— nonnegotiable under some conditions but not all.

In her study, Bendersky identifies another strategy that negotiators can use to persuade counterparts to soften their hard-and-fast convictions. She began by administering a survey to more than 200 participants, some of whom identified with the Tea Party, during the government shutdown of 2013. Some of the participants read a description of the shutdown that affirmed the Tea Party’s status: “This situation has increased the status of the Tea Party in many people’s eyes.” Others read a more neutral description of the shutdown.

The very notion of compromising on our “sacred values”—such as our personal code of ethics or our religious and political beliefs—can threaten our self-image and sense of social identity.

All participants were then asked whether they believed that the House of Representatives should vote to end the shutdown without defunding or delaying the ACA. Tea Party–identified participants who had read the description that affirmed the Tea Party’s status were more likely to support an end to the shutdown than were those who had read the more neutral description.

Agreeing to disagree

For another experiment, conducted as the ACA received an avalanche of negative press due to its troubled launch, Bendersky recruited more than 200 political conservatives and surveyed their opinions of the ACA. She then paired each of them with a partner (who was actually fictitious) for a decision-making task. Those who supported the ACA were told that their partner strongly opposed it and identified most closely with the Tea Party, and those who opposed the ACA were told that their partner strongly supported it and identified most closely with Democratic politicians. (Those without strong feelings on the issue were randomly assigned to one of the two conditions.)

The participants then received one of three messages from their partner, each of which opened, “I guess we disagree about Obamacare.” One version of the message went on to affirm the status of the participant and the party with which he identified: “I have a lot of respect for people like you who stand by their principles.” The partner also expressed the view that the political party the participant favored had “gained a lot of status and influence in Washington from the conflicts over Obamacare.” Other participants read messages that either did not mention status or affirmed the partner’s own status.

In a decision-making task that followed, which involved allocating lottery tickets between themselves and their partners, participants who had read a status- affirming message were more generous toward their partners than were those who had read the other messages. They also viewed their partners to be less adversarial.

The results offer a new method for convincing a negotiating counterpart to make concessions on a seemingly sacred value: Affirm her status or the status of her group. “I really admire your dedication to this cause,” you might say, or “It seems like your organization’s position on this issue has really boosted its profile.” By affirming others’ status, we buffer them against the threats to their identity that would occur if they compromised on an ideological issue— and increase their flexibility in the process, according to Bendersky.

How have you handled negotiations that encounter sacred values?

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