Scott Atran
“Mobilizing for Collective Action—to Protect Cherished Values”
Part 3 of “The Devoted Actor: Unconditional Commitment and Intractable Conflict across
Cultures” appears below. To read the complete article including footnotes, click here.
     • To read Part 1, “The Devoted Actor,” click here.
     • To read Part 2, “Sacred Values,” click here.
Lecture by Scott Atran, “Talking to the Enemy”
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Talking to the Enemy
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Devoted Actors Are Deontic Actors

Philosophers of moral virtue suggest that moral values may be deontological or utilitarian. Deontic processing is defined by an emphasis on rights and wrongs, whereas utilitarian processing is characterized by costs and benefits. Models of rational behavior predict many of society’s patterns, such as favored strategies for maximizing profit or likelihood for criminal behavior in terms of opportunity costs and important aspects of conflict management. But the prospects of crippling economic burdens and huge numbers of deaths do not necessarily sway people from positions on whether going to war or opting for revolution is the right or wrong choice.

For example, in one series of studies, we confronted people in the United States and Nigeria with hypothetical hostage situations and asked them whether they would approve of a solution—which was either diplomatic or violent—for freeing the prisoners. When told that their action would result in all hostages being saved, both groups endorsed the plan presented to them. When asked how many hostages they required to be saved to ensure their support (from 1 to 100), those evaluating the military option said only one hostage needed to be rescued, showing a remarkable insensitivity to scope. In contrast, those evaluating the diplomatic option required a majority of hostages to be rescued.

Most theories and models related to violent intergroup conflict assume that civilians and leaders make a rational calculation. If the total cost of the war is less than the cost of the alternatives, they will support war. But in another set of studies, we found that when people are confronted with violent situations, they consistently ignore quantifiable costs and benefits, relying instead on sacred values. We asked a representative sample of 650 Israeli settlers in the West Bank about the dismantlement of their settlements as part of a peace agreement with Palestinians.

Some subjects were asked about their willingness to engage in nonviolent protests, whereas others were asked about violence. Besides willingness to violently resist eviction, subjects rated how effective they thought the action would be and how morally right the decision was. When it came to nonviolent options such as picketing and blocking streets, rational behavior models predicted settlers’ decisions. In deciding whether to engage in violence, the settlers reacted differently. Rather than how effective they thought violence would be in saving their homes, the settlers’ willingness to engage in violent protest depended only on how morally correct they considered that option to be.

Our research with political leaders and general populations shows that sacred values—not political games or economics—underscore seemingly intractable conflicts such as those between the Israelis and the Palestinians or between Iran and the Western allies that defy the rational give-and-take of businesslike negotiation. Consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where rational cost-benefit analysis says the Palestinians ought to agree to forgo sovereignty over Jerusalem or the claim of refugees to return to homes in Israel in exchange for an autonomous state encompassing their other pre-1967 lands because they would gain more sovereignty and more land than they would renounce.

They should support such an agreement even more if the United States and Europe sweetened the deal by giving every Palestinian family substantial, long-term economic assistance. Instead, research with psychologists Jeremy Ginges and Douglas Medin and political scientist Khalil Shikaki reveals that the financial sweetener makes Palestinians more opposed to the deal and more likely to support violence to oppose it, including suicide bombings. Israeli settlers also have rejected a two-state solution that requires Israel to give up Judea and Samaria or “recognize the legitimacy of the right of Palestinian refugees to return” (in an agreement not actually requiring Israel to absorb the refugees). But Israelis, too, were even more opposed if the deal included additional long-term financial aid or a guarantee of living in peace and prosperity.

To be sure, these studies involve mostly “emic” elicitations of willingness to act expressed by people from “the inside”. Nevertheless, “etic” or “outside” observations and measures of actual behavior that are not based on information elicited from informants tend to confirm the relevance of inside observations and measures of mental models to the prediction and interpretation of outside findings. For example, another series of studies—with psychologists Morteza Dehghani, Rumen Iliev, and Sonya Sachdeva—indicates that a relatively small but politically significant portion of the Iranian population believes that acquiring nuclear energy (but not necessarily nuclear weapons) has become a sacred value in the sense that proposed economic incentives and disincentives backfire by leading to increased and more emotionally entrenched support.

Here, it appears that sacred values can emerge for issues with relatively little historical background and significance when they become bound up with conflicts over collective identity—the sense of “who we are.” For a minority of Iranians (11%–13% in these experiments), the issue had become a sacred subject through association with religious rhetoric and ritual (e.g., Iranian women marching and chanting in favor of “nuclear rights” while waving the Quran).

This group, which tends to be religious, rural, and close to the previous presidential regime (Ahmadinejad), believes a nuclear program is bound up with national identity and Islam itself, so that offering material rewards or punishments to abandon the program only increases anger and support for it. Until the current round of nuclear negotiations with Iran (spring–summer 2015), the ratcheting up of sanctions had been accompanied by increases in construction of nuclear facilities, the level of nuclear enrichment, uranium output, and the total stockpile of low-enriched uranium, and this, in spite of the pressure on the country exerted by economic sanctions, with plans for 10 “new” enrichment sites touted shortly after the last round of sanctions.

Sacred values do not make people opposed to any sort of compromise. Instead, they appear to invoke specific taboos protecting these values against material trade-offs. Offering people materially irrelevant symbolic gestures can work where material incentives do not. For example, Palestinian devoted actors were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war. Similarly, Israeli settlers were less disapproving of compromising sacred land for peace if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups symbolically recognized Israel.

Our survey results were mirrored by interviews with political leaders conducted with political scientists Robert Axelrod and Richard Davis. For example, Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy chairman of Hamas, said no when we proposed a trade-off for peace without granting a right of return. He became angry when we added in the idea of substantial American aid for rebuilding: “No, we do not sell ourselves for any amount.” But when we mentioned a potential Israeli apology for 1948, he said: “Yes, an apology is important, as a beginning. It’s not enough because our houses and land were taken away from us and something has to be done about that.”

His response suggested that progress on sacred values might open the way for negotiations on material issues rather than the reverse. We obtained a similar reaction from Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. 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, “OK, but the Palestinians would have to show that they sincerely mean it, change their anti-Semitic textbooks.”

Making these sorts of wholly intangible symbolic but possibly sincere gestures, like recognition of a right to exist or a sincere apology, simply does not compute in any utilitarian calculus. And yet the science suggests that these gestures may be the best way to cut through the world’s symbolic knot.

More systematic understanding of what kinds of symbolic gestures involving sacred values are likely to be effective in conflict prevention and resolution, including signatures of emotional sincerity, could provide novel possibilities for breakthroughs to avoid or lessen conflict. In a meeting of senior Iranians, Saudis, Israelis, Americans, and British arranged by members of our team and Lord John Alderdice (Convenor, UK House of Lords) at the University of Oxford on the nuclear issue in early September 2013, we informally monitored expressions of devotion to values, including emotional attachment, and suggested opening negotiations via a symbolic gesture evoking sacred values rather than political positions. In response we received a message that Iran’s President Rouhani would publicly acknowledge the Holocaust in New York (which US and Israeli officials told us would be a positive development for negotiations).

Sociopolitical groups often have “sacred rules” for which their people would fight and risk serious loss/death rather than compromise. In another study with a representative sample of more than 700 adults (no gender differences) in the West Bank and Gaza, we asked,

What if a person wanted to carry out a bombing (which some … call suicide attacks) against the enemies of Palestine, but his father becomes ill, and his family begs the chosen martyr to take care of his father; would it be acceptable to delay the attack indefinitely?

What if a person wanted to carry out a bombing (which some … call suicide attacks) against the enemies of Palestine, but his family begs him to delay martyrdom indefinitely because there was a significantly high chance the chosen martyr’s family would be killed in retaliation; would it be acceptable to delay the attack indefinitely?

Palestinians tended to reason about political violence in a noninstrumental manner by showing more disapproval over a delay of a martyrdom attack to rescue an entire family than over a delay of a martyrdom attack to take care of an ill father. These findings indicate that when people are reasoning between duty to war or to family, they are not making instrumental decisions but decisions based on perceptions of moral obligations that can change as a result of instrumentally irrelevant alterations in context.

If people perceive that a sacred rule was violated, they may feel morally obliged to retaliate against the wrongdoers even if the retaliation does more harm than good. But such moral commitment to sacred values ultimately can be the key to the success or failure of insurgent or revolutionary movements with far fewer material means than the armies or police arrayed against them.

Ever since the nineteenth-century anarchists, science education in engineering and medical studies has been a frequent criterion of leadership for these movements because such studies demonstrate hands-on capability and potential for personal and costly sacrifice through long-term commitment to a course of study that requires delayed gratification. Al-Qaeda, like other revolutionary groups, was initially formed and led by fairly well-off and well-educated individuals, the majority of whom studied engineering and medicine.