Across the world, people believe that devotion to sacred or core values that incorporate moral beliefs — like the welfare of family and country, or commitment to religion and honor — are, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable. Our studies, carried out with the support of the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department, suggest that people will reject material compensation for dropping their commitment to sacred values and will defend those values regardless of the costs.In our research, we surveyed nearly 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis from 2004 to 2008.
All those surveyed responded to the same set of deals. First they would be given a straight-up offer in which each side would make difficult concessions in exchange for peace; next they were given a scenario in which their side was granted an additional material incentive; and last came a proposal in which the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values.
using the standard approaches of “business-like negotiations” favored by Western diplomats will only backfire. Many Westerners seem to ignore these clearly expressed “irrational” preferences, because in a sensible world they ought not to exist.
Absolutists who violently rejected offers of money or peace for sacred land were considerably more inclined to accept deals that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures. For example, Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war. Similarly, Israeli respondents said they could live with a partition of Jerusalem and borders very close to those that existed before the 1967 war if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist.
Remarkably, our survey results were mirrored by our discussions with political leaders from both sides. progress on sacred values might open the way for negotiations on material issues, rather than the reverse.
We got a similar reaction from Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line former Israeli prime minister. We asked him whether he would seriously consider accepting a two-state solution following the 1967 borders if all major Palestinian factions, including Hamas, were to recognize the right of the Jewish people to an independent state in the region. He answered, “O.K., but the Palestinians would have to show that they sincerely mean it, change their textbooks and anti-Semitic characterizations.”
Making these sorts of wholly intangible “symbolic” concessions, like an apology or recognition of a right to exist, simply doesn’t compute on any utilitarian calculus. And yet the science says they may be the best way to start cutting the knot.