Conventional wisdom in conflict management suggests that negotiators should either set aside ‘deal breaker’ issues that are related to clashing values for last, or bypass them with sufﬁcient material incentives. Our findings suggest that conventional wisdom is inadequate. In fact, offering material beneﬁts in exchange for giving up perceived core values can actually make settlement more difﬁcult because people see the offering as an insult rather than a compromise. From our field research, we have found evidence that, on top of material or instrumental values, communities also often share “Sacred Values” (SVs), which drive action independent of rational expectations of risk and reward and blind antagonists to exit strategies. Across the world, people believe that devotion to essential values — such as family, country, religion, honor, or liberty—are absolute and inviolable. Values that become sacred, as when land becomes “Holy Land” (Atran, Axelrod & Davis, 2007; Atran & Axelrod, 2008) or when nuclear capability becomes bound up with national and religious identity (Dehghani et al., 2010), sustain intractable conflicts that defy the logic of realpolitik and ‘business-like’ negotiation, but also provide surprising opportunities for symbolic breakthroughs, including sincere displays of recognition and respect, which can open the way to material compromise (Gingest et al., 2011). Understanding how and why we get these effects, and learning how to leverage them against enduring or spiraling conflict to promote peaceful outcomes, should be a priority for social science research and for policymaking.
We endeavor to develop a new synthesis, a paradigm shift from dominant “rational actor” perspectives prevalent since WW2 to the perspective of “devoted actors” unrestrained in commitment to conflict or cooperation. This theoretical synthesis will serve as a platform for innovative evidence-based strategies for conflict understanding and interventions aimed at lessening prospects for war and helping societies in turmoil and transition become more productive and fair. A unique feature of this synergy is the combination of cognitive (including neurocognitive), social, economic, evolutionary and political science with fine-grained cross-cultural fieldwork and quantitative analysis of experimental, survey and historical data on real-world conflicts. Integrating transformational theory with context-specific insights novel pragmatic strategies and will not only set our work apart scientifically; it will expand possibilities for negotiation and adjudication across transcultural boundaries so as to reduce the consequences of conflict in an increasingly global competition for political, social and economic resources. Research will be conducted in close collaboration with policy experts, including policymakers at the highest levels of government with whom we have longstanding ties and who, through long experience in negotiating violent conflicts across the world, recognize the importance of understanding “devoted actors” who react “not out of rational self interest but emotionally, and often to [their] cost” (Alderdice, Presentation to UN General Assembly, 2012).
A key focus of our international concern is the potential for nuclear and cyber war, where the most insidious and hard-to-manage threat may stem not from technological challenges or hardware and software vulnerabilities but from “wetware,” the inclinations and biases of socially interacting human brains. Despite the Cold War’s end, nuclear proliferation sustains the danger of massive physical destruction orders of magnitude greater than anything humanity has suffered. Understanding the motivations and decision making of countries pursuing nuclear capabilities, especially in shifting environments like the Middle East and East Asia, has become critical to international security.
Cyber conflict is a seemingly intractable problem for several reasons: attribution is often impossible, arms control is unlikely because verification of agreed limits on capabilities is impossible, non-state actors can achieve meaningful capabilities, and there is always a reciprocal fear of surprise attack. While cyber conflict differs in many ways from nuclear issues, it requires new concepts just as the introduction of nuclear weapons did (Axelrod 2003. 2010). In the nuclear case it took years before important ideas were developed that eventually became conventional wisdom. Examples of such concepts from the nuclear field are “the rationality of irrationality” and “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). The approach to cyber and nuclear issues that we advocate will target psycho-social factors in interaction with technology: for example, within the conceptual frame of “the rationality of irrationality,” developed by Thomas Schelling for nuclear issues and our collaborator, Robert Axelrod for cyber issues, in order to better understand and manage the willingness to sacrifice one’s self or even one’s whole society and to devise both the vocabulary and strategies necessary to reduce this willingness.