That term has a specific meaning in social psychology. Sacred values are those that trump rational cost-benefit analysis. Specifically, the more someone is offered in return for giving up a sacred value, the less he is willing to do so. That's the opposite of how people treat other values, where the more we are offered for our old car, our house, an article of clothing, our place in a line, or any other "secular" holding, the more willing we are to give it up.What about Iranian nukes?
With sacred values, this cost-benefit calculus is turned on its head, explains anthropologist Scott Atran of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, who has studied Islamic terrorist groups. When Atran asked Palestinians if they would be willing to give up their claims to Jerusalem (a sacred value) in return for their own state, most said no, and—here is where the topsy-turvy thinking caused by sacred values came in—when he then asked if they would give up Jerusalem if the U.S. and Europe also gave every Palestinian family substantial financial assistance for a year, even fewer said yes. That is in sharp contrast to the rational-actor perspective that has long dominated diplomacy (and economics).The reason, as I wrote in a 2006 column, is that sacred values "are ideals so transcendent they have no equivalent in anything material," and insinuating that a sacred value such as sovereignty over Jerusalem can be denominated in anything so crass as money is deeply offensive. How offensive? More Palestinians say they would resort to violence to retain their claim to Jerusalem with the monetary sweetener than would do so without it, as he and colleagues reported in a 2007 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In a new experiment, Morteza Dehghani and Douglas Medin of Northwestern University, Atran, and colleagues asked 72 young (average age, 28), educated (college grads) Iranians about Iran giving up its nuclear program. Twenty-two percent chose "I think this definitely needs to happen," while 15 percent chose "I do not object to this," and 52 percent chose "this is acceptable only if the benefits of stopping the program are great enough." But 11 percent chose "this is shouldn't be done no matter how great the benefits are." This is the group that, the scientists report in a paper in the December issue of the journal Judgment and Decision Making, for whom the nuclear program seems to constitute a sacred value.
That has interesting implications. The scientists then asked this group if Iranians would support a deal in which Iran gives up its nuclear program in return for the U.S. drastically reducing its military aid to Israel, or if they would support such a deal with the added sweetener that the European Union would pay Iran $40 billion. Just as one would expect with a sacred value, the young Iranians said there would be less support for a deal with the EU sweetener—what the scientists call "the backfire effect of offering material incentives to induce compromise over sacred values."
Eleven percent seems like a small number - though the authors claim that "once you get beyond the young and the educated, more Iranians likely view the nuclear program as sacred. And even a minority, if it is committed enough, can carry the day". In fact, they are conducting a study with larger number of participants.
I think it will be interesting to compare it with the case of Pakistan. On the one hand, Pakistani bomb is an outcome of its rivalry with India, but on the other, it is often perceived, within Pakistan, as an "Islamic bomb" - with the latter factor mirroring the country's identity issues. It is easy to see how it can be a "sacred value" in both of these cases. However, it will be interesting to see if the relative weight associated to the two views (national identity versus religious identity) becomes a predictor of the percentage of people considering the nuclear issue to be a "sacred" one.
Read the full Newsweek article here. Also note that Scott Atran is the next speaker for our Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion on March 25th.