In negotiations, cash bargains aren’t always acceptable.
The New York Times Sunday Review ⎢ November 17, 2013
Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, and Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, before the start of talks over Iran’s nuclear program.
ACCORDING TO NEWS REPORTS, a key factor in last weekend’s diplomatic impasse over Iran’s nuclear program was Iran’s insistence on what President Hassan Rouhani has called its “right” to enrich uranium. “National interests are our red line,” he declared, echoing earlier statements by other Iranian leaders.
Western officials appear flummoxed: Why would Iran refuse to budge, even when offered the considerable financial incentive of lessened sanctions?
They shouldn’t be surprised. Researchers who study “sacred values” — moral imperatives we’re unwilling to compromise on, be they political, religious or personal — have detected just such a pattern of intransigence. 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 has evidently become such an issue.
The study of what are now called sacred values began in the mid-’90s with two psychologists, Jonathan Baron at the University of Pennsylvania and Philip Tetlock, then at the University of California, Berkeley. In both economics and game theory, the conventional assumption is that we humans are “rational actors” — that we respond to a given situation by weighing our options and picking the one that seems to offer the greatest benefit. But psychologists, who study actual people as opposed to abstractions of people, have long been aware that humans don’t always exhibit behavior an economist would consider rational. Professors Tetlock and Baron both challenged the assumption that anything can be had for a price.
Faced with mundane choices, people will readily alter their behavior in response to money. You can pay someone to clean your house or defend you in a murder trial. But with issues like gun control or abortion, a fundamentally different calculus seems to be at work. Economic trade-offs — like lifting an embargo in exchange for concessions — suddenly become unacceptable. As Professor Tetlock (now also at the University of Pennsylvania) has observed, even to suggest such a trade-off is to invite moral outrage, along with feelings of contamination and a need for moral cleansing.
Sacred-value conflicts can be lessened, sometimes just by reframing the issue. When Professor Tetlock and a colleague asked people about President Bill Clinton’s practice of rewarding big campaign donors with a night in the Lincoln Bedroom, they got varying reactions depending on how the question was phrased. If they presented it as an economic transaction — pay $250,000 or more and get a night in the White House — even Clinton supporters were indignant. But when the practice was painted as the kind of thing you’d do for a friend, much less outrage ensued.
Not every issue can be so easily finessed — but whatever the circumstance, money seems a subject best avoided. When Scott Atran of the French National Center for Scientific Research and Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research asked people in the Middle East about potential solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they found that the mention of money frequently incited moral outrage. Among Palestinian refugees, those who were open to compromise responded favorably to the idea of giving up their right of return to Israel in exchange for financial support for the new state of Palestine. But when moral absolutists among the refugees were offered this solution, they greeted it with anger, disgust and increased support for violence. Symbolic gestures — like Israel’s giving up of its claim on the West Bank — had the opposite effect. The same pattern held with Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
As the West Bank is to Israelis and Palestinians, nuclear power is becoming to many Iranians. Powerful figures there have linked the issue to the history of foreign exploitation of Iran’s oil resources in an effort to reframe it as a matter of national pride. A recent online survey led by Morteza Dehghani of the University of Southern California suggests that this may be working: 14 percent of Professor Dehghani’s respondents treated nuclear power as a sacred value.
For some observers, this raises a troubling question: How do you know for sure if someone is expressing a deeply held belief — or just bluffing as a negotiation strategy?
Neuroscience just might hold an answer. As psychologists examine what we think, brain scientists are trying to figure out where we think it. The results suggest we have radically different ways of processing ordinary and sacred beliefs.
In one recent experiment, Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist at Emory University, took M.R.I. images of participants’ brains as he asked them to consider changing their personal beliefs in exchange for money. Would they trade their preference for dogs over cats? What about their belief in God? Would they be willing to kill an innocent person?
When participants were questioned about issues of the dog-or-cat variety, their brain scans showed activity in the parietal cortex — a region that’s thought to be involved in making cost-benefit calculations. But when asked about issues on which they declined to make a trade, entirely different parts of the brain were activated — systems that are associated with telling right from wrong and with storing and retrieving rules. The result, Professor Berns observes, could be a new way to gauge sacred values “that is not solely dependent on self-report.”
Are we going to start running international negotiators through an M.R.I. machine to see where they’re processing the issues? Highly unlikely. But results like Professor Berns’s might at least disprove the idea, still held by many, that every belief has its price. Given the intensely negative emotions that financial incentives can trigger, this might be a good lesson to learn. ■
Frank Rose is the author of The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories.