Is Your Possession Really Sacred?

By PON Staffon / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “What’s It Worth to You?” by Max H. Bazerman, first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Imagine that a beloved aunt passes away and leaves you a 50-acre parcel of Colorado land. You have often visited the area, and though you never considered owning rural property, the fact that the land has been in your family for four generations makes it special.

Soon after you are granted your inheritance, a Colorado-based realtor phones to ask whether you would be interested in selling the whole 50 acres for $350,000 or any significant portion of the land at $7,000 per acre. The agent tells you that she can get you an offer at that price within 24 hours. Your gut response is that the price sounds low, and besides, the family land is not for sale. You turn down the realtor’s proposal and even tell her that you are not interested in higher offers.

You’re likely to view your newly acquired parcel of Colorado land as virtually priceless because of the fact that it’s been in your family for generations. A seller’s emotional attachment to a sacred possession can lead her to price it beyond its market value. The problem with sacredness, notes business professor Phil Tetlock of the University of California at Berkeley, is that it makes negotiators unwilling to consider wise compromises or trades.

It’s useful to distinguish between two classes of sacred ideals. There are those you would never trade under any circumstance; to compromise, you believe, would be morally reprehensible. There are also issues that you consider sacred yet would be willing to trade for the right price. In this latter category, which has been called pseudosacred, the sacred label creates a barrier to the discovery of mutually beneficial tradeoffs. Agreements are possible in which you give up some portion of what you label sacred in exchange for other valued outcomes. For instance, your family might gain far greater benefit from the Colorado land if you were to sell at least some of it and contribute to the younger generation’s college fund.

Pseudosacredness is a common phenomenon in environmental disputes. Sacredness interacts with the endowment effect to lead those defending natural areas to place far higher value on preserving undisturbed wilderness than on restoring developed wilderness to its original condition. Claims of sacredness often bar negotiators from finding mutually beneficial trades.