How lightly, or how tightly, do you hold your values? Are there things you hold dear, which almost automatically excite your emotions, for which you would make the costliest of sacrifices?
These are the sorts of questions Scott Atran discusses in this Social Science Bites podcast. Atran is a “classically trained” anthropologist (he was once an assistant to Margaret Mead) and is the research director in anthropology at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, a research professor of public policy and psychology at the University of Michigan, and a founding fellow of the Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford’s Harris Manchester College. He is also director of research and co-founder of Artis Research & Risk Modeling, Artis International, and Artis LookingGlass.
As those associations suggest, much of his research sits at the intersection of violent acts and cognitive science, and much of his fieldwork takes place on the front lines of conflict. His findings are often acknowledged as true by policymakers – even as he ruefully tells interviewer David Edmonds, they generally then refuse to recognise the sincerity with which the other side holds its values.
And yet these spiritual values often trump physical ones. And from a policy perspective, say the attempting defeat ISIS in the Middle East, it helps to understand that a devoted actor will often outperform a rational actor when the going gets tough. This helps explain the initial successes of ISIS, and the ability of Kurdish forces to battle back against ISIS. Or even of the American colonies to defeat the British empire.
Atran explains that while there are no theories, at present, about sacred values, but there are features that he has been able to test for reliability.
For example, Atran suggests that something so valued is immune to trading, discounting or negotiating, and that offering to buy your way around someone’s sacred values can result in anger or violence.
He asked refugees in Lebanon and Jordan what was the chance they would go back to Israel if they had the right of return. Six percent – one out of 16 – said they would ‘consider it.’ But then they were asked if they would give up this sacred value, the implication being that if they weren’t going to exercise it why bother keeping it. Yet 80 percent answered no. Then the researchers asked if the respondents would support the 1967 boundaries of Israel, and accept a cash payment, in exchange for permanently ceding their right of return.
“Not only did they refuse,” Atran notes, “but it went to ceiling. We tested for support of suicide bombing, skin responses for emotion and moral outrage, it went through the roof.” But this allegiance to the intangible works two ways – Atran found that when a questioner acknowledged a refugee’s right of return, support for the peace process – even without any other sweetener – increased.