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An Alternative Path To Peace In War


Original Guest Post

By Razainc

The failure of carrot and stick incentives

Since the advent of game theory, academics in political science and economics, along with policymakers and politicians have been and continue to be driven by an oversimplified view which holds individuals in a rational actor paradigm. Implying that, based on Rational Choice Theory (self explanatory), people do a cost-benefit analysis to maximize personal advantages when making a decision. An example of this is Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) a concept developed primarily by John Von Neumann.

This view, though useful when dealing with large bureaucratic organizations (which tend to use rational approaches when making decisions) breaks down when dealing with committed individuals or groups. In other words, people committed to a cause.

Recent evidence from cognitive science and neurology suggests that another agent of decision-making is driven by transcendental ideals, which can be called “sacred values,” meaning the values that are core to a person’s identity, emotions, their sense of religious identity, these values vary depending on the individuals and societies.

Take for example the prisoner’s dilemma which says the most logical thing for two prisoners who are accomplices in a crime, is to tell on each other and sell each other out rather than cooperate. When the prisoner’s dilemma was tested with actual prisoners it showed them diverging from theoretical predictions with most prisoners choosing the non rational choice.

With the election victory of Netanyahu and his use of race baiting, as well as his comments reiterating denying the Palestinians a state, the belief has emerged that any settlement is dead and that the world is witnessing a new nadir in the occupation.

However, this dour state of affairs doesn’t have to be destiny, there is new evidence suggesting a path to peace can start with a simple acknowledgment of wrongs and a sincere apology.

Sacred Values

So what are sacred values and why should they be recognized when dealing with conflicts like the Israeli occupation of Palestine?

Sacred Values override utilitarian (cost benefit) forms of reasoning in humans, and they lead to action (sometimes violent) when a person feels such values are under attack. People will be ready to defend them at all costs. Under these circumstances, no material incentive will change a person’s mind or at least trigger what may appear as rational behavior. Actually, it would have the opposite effect and backfire. In other words, everyone does not have a price or more accurately, a material price.

Scott Atran, a French and American anthropologist, said in my interview with him:

“Our behavioral and fMRI research in the lab and in conflict hotspots around the world indicate that SVs (sacred values) are cognitively processed as deontic rules (I have a moral obligation to do such and such regardless of the risks or rewards, costs or consequences) that drive actions independent, or all out of proportion, to likely, rationally expected outcomes.”

Conflicts with sacred values also are different from other group conflicts like in gangs where there is camaraderie but not commitment to a sacred cause, Atran in my interview continues.

“Gangs, like some combat groups, sometimes have strong links of camaraderie, but unlike committed combat groups (Special Forces, revolutionaries and insurgents) generally do not have commitment to a sacred cause. Commitment to comrades alone (brotherhoods/sisters in arms) can produce costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying beyond one’s own narrow self-interest at the moment, but there is strong empirical evidence that without commitment to a sacred moral cause such a group can be readily defeated by another with strong commitment to a sacred cause. Gangs and criminal organizations can do fairly well against police and armed forces motivated by typical reward structures, such as pay and promotion. But gangs as well as regular armies and police will generally lose against morally committed forces with up to an order of magnitude less firepower and manpower”

An Israel-Palestine relations experiment by Atran showed that more material incentives, like money, in the form of economic aid is offered can be counter productive in peace negotiations. Another study by Atran on Iran  also shows that sacred values can also be non-traditional like accruing nuclear power. This study showed that negative material incentives like sanctions can also have a similar effect and backfire.

In the experiment three offers were made: 1) the standard peace deal without a material incentive added, 2.) a peace offer plus a material incentive in the form of economic aid, 3.) A peace deal with no material incentive but the other side would recognize their values.  For Israelis it was the right for Israel to exist and why they came to Israel and for Palestinians it was recognition of the Nakba and the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinians accompanied by an apology. When economic aid was offered to Israeli settlers to give up land support for violence rose. When economic aid was offered to Palestinian refugees and Hamas supporters to give up the right of return support for violence likewise went up.

According to Atran’s studies something as simple as recognizing the other side’s Sacred Values would be much more beneficial and impactful. Such a recognition can come in the form of an apology (from Israelis) for Palestinian suffering resulting from the historical injustice of the Nakba, or the recognition of the right of Israel to exist (by Palestinians parties like Hamas). Neither of these actions holds any material value, they are only symbolic.

Atran describing his research in NYTimes op-ed How Words Could End a War states:

“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.”

“Indeed, across the political spectrum, almost everyone we surveyed rejected the initial solutions we offered — ideas that are accepted as common sense among most Westerners, like simply trading land for peace or accepting shared sovereignty over Jerusalem …  in general the greater the monetary incentive involved in the deal, the greater the disgust from respondents. Israelis and Palestinians alike often reacted as though we had asked them to sell their children. This strongly implies that 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 … Diplomats hope that peace and concrete progress on material and quality-of-life matters (electricity, water, agriculture, the economy and so on) will eventually make people forget the more heartfelt issues. ”

“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.” says Atran.

This study suggests that such symbolic gestures are likely to encourage support for peace. It doesn’t change their perception as to whether peace is more likely but it makes them more likely to support peace. The problem is getting people to make such symbolic concessions and this should be the challenge for our governments moving forward, as well as having an honest broker which western governments haven’t been. Ultimately what concessions, if any, Palestinians and Israelis make is up to them and should not be determined by us.

Other Alternatives

Another way we can get groups that are in conflict to stop fighting is to unite against a common enemy like another group that threatens both parties. Sacred values have applications to all types of other forms of conflict resolution, including current tensions between Iran and Western nations (or the fight against ISIS). Or even tensions between Israel and Iran who actually used to be quite friendly even during Khomeini regime (a common fore, the USSR, played a role in this until relations between Iran and Russia became less tense and more friendly).

Wouldn’t it to better to make people unite against abstract enemies, such as ending poverty? An example which seems on its face would be better than finding a third party for us to go to war with or would it be better to resolve conflicts with our current enemies?

The problem as Atran points out in my interview, is “For some, a ‘war on poverty’ or for the environment can be a sacred cause, but unless it generates the level of commitment and sacrifice, including fighting and dying if necessary, such causes cannot compete against those that do elicit such sacrifice.”

The actions of most governments and policy makers  seem to still be using outdated models that treat people as solely selfish rational actors who care primarily about themselves first. But we are presented with an alternative choice that recognizes peoples values, and can help us end conflicts in a much more cost effective way. Let us take the path where we recognize each others humanity and values and work towards a common good.

This article was edited with input from Mehdi

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  • el turco

    Sorry if I’m late to the party, but it depends on what you mean by “right to exist”. The sense in my community (Jews of MENA origin who make up over half of the Israeli Jewish population) is that Muslims historically have looked upon Jews as a minority whose “right to exist” was limited to the hope that the various dynasties who ruled over them would do so with some beneficence. Many did, others did not. The reality was that forced conversions, mob violence, and general subjugation were common aspects of Jewish life in MENA well before and into the era of Zionism.

    Add to this the recent destruction of Middle Eastern Jewish communities by Arab nationalist authorities who viewed them as a fifth column, and the question can be reframed from a Jewish perspective as asking where the Jews who are no longer welcome (and whose homes were expropriated) in their ancient home countries of Iraq, Syria, Algeria and so forth are supposed to go and whether they can expect the equal rights and guarantees of physical safety which were obviously not given in the early post-colonial era.

    This community feels that they were denied their “right to exist” in their ancestral homelands by political elites claiming to support the Palestinian cause (we know now that this went against the desires of much of the Palestinian leadership) and when you tell them that their desire to have assurances of their “right to exist” (religion, life and property) represents a “deeply entrenched settler-colonial mindset” you are unconsciously connecting yourself in their minds to the post-colonial dictators who victimized them and perpetuating the idea that Muslims/Arabs can only accept Jewish existence as unarmed second-class citizens (a VERY common idea in my community).

    While this is not how you see it, the challenge of “sacred values” is looking at the other party’s narratives and framing your words carefully so as to avoid the mental landmines that shut down conversation and only draw the chinese finger trap tighter. BDS may be a solution for change, but I can guarantee you that a manichean BDS which calls the victims of Arab nationalism “european colonialists” while the victims of Zionism are “freedom fighters” will only make things worse.

  • Truthslayer

    I agree wholeheartedly, though I had not seen your comment. The reworking of opposing “Sacred Values” is key to the resolution of this and similar conflicts. Unfortunately, the focus often diverts from “Sacred Values” and the fiery statements of certain political leaders on both sides of the aisle, which insult and undermine these values, further serve to perpetuate the conflict. I appreciate the article and will read through it in time.

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    So in short when you have Sacred Values in conflict with each other it is you have to reframe them so people can see them in an alternate light, now as for how you do that is another question entirely

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    As I said in my comment below in the case of when the opposing Sacred Values are conflicting it is about reframing sacred values.
    This article might not fully address your question but it’s worth a good read.

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    Yeah I guess I was a bit defensive due to some of the comments. Peoples decisions are a mix of different factors but Sacred Values tend override other motivations for a certain number in a way where that goes against much of the cost benefit thinking we have been trained to expect from people due to popular culture. So in that sense his reaserch can be seen as binary since it is not dealing with cases of people who might be more motivated by material interest vs “sacred”. But I think that’s due to there being so much research being done cost benefit analysis that it has become the standard to the point where non-rational choices don’t even factor.

    But on the question of when Sacred Values can be contradictory it is about reframing sacred values.
    This article might not fully address your question but it’s worth a good read.

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    “Take it EASY” I see what you did there

  • Solid Snake

    Alright, take it easy there Biggie Smalls…

  • Tanveer Wan Khanobi

    Sad times.

  • Jekyll

    Not if you get old and irrelevant, apparently.

  • Tanveer Wan Khanobi

    I thought cat calling was a bad thing anyway?

  • HerrSkolly

    I wonder if David D. Burns’ Feeling Good might be better at about this point. 🙂

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    Actually I was thinking of the Nina Simone’s Feeling Good

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    I understand what you were getting at with this article Raza, i.e. what exactly are the sacred values that need to be recognized on each side that would increase support for peace. I am intrigued by Atran’s studies and empirical lens in searching for alternative routes to peace in war. I like much of Atran’s work, especially when it comes to the topic of “terrorism.” My criticism of these calculations regarding symbolic v. material is that it is limited to that binary. Also the questions that were asked don’t account for the contradictions in sacred values. So perhaps there needs to be more done in this regard. However, thanks for the report and the investigation into this topic from a perspective we don’t usually hear.

  • Just_Stopping_By

    “So interestingly enough (though not surprisingly) people are more
    likely to identify the side they support as having moral cause while the
    other side as being motivated with greed.”

    Couldn’t have put it better myself! The world would be a lot better off if we could all attempt to see the moral cause of all sides in a conflict–even when those seem to contradict each other–and not claim moral exclusivity for ourselves.

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    So you can have Sacred Values that may be wrong from a certain moral standpoint, but I wanted to focus more on them in terms of the response people give when they given a material vs symbolic incentive to exchange them.

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    I don’t disagree with this as a moral position. But with my article I wanted to highlight what sacred values are and why they need to be factored in.
    Paradoxically although it might be contradictory many are willing to do it.

    Atran related story about Elliot Abrams saying it was obvious that the settler had sacred values but then Abrams went on to say how the Palestinains were motivated by greed.

    So interestingly enough (though not surprisingly) people are more
    likely to identify the side they support as having moral cause while the
    other side as being motivated with greed. Because of this what is sacred to many Palestinians hasn’t been included in much of the negotiations facilitated by Western Nations why because many tend to identify with Israel more.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    The fact that Israelis insist on “recognition of Israel’s right to exist” as part of their sacred values indicates the deeply entrenched settler-colonial mindset of the citizenry and also would contradict the sacred value of acknowledging the Nakba and all it entails. How can one expect Palestinians to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist when that existence was premised on their dispossession, expulsion and murder?

  • Tanveer Wan Khanobi

    And I’m ugly.

  • The greenmantle

    er who is she ? Is she important ?

    Sir David

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    Sure I can substitute Saudi Arabia and it will still make sense.

    atheo “Israel is not even an ally of the US because in order to be part of an alliance a nation must define its borders.”

    You are now just arguing about a principle that the U.S does not follow America does not in practice care how Israel defines it’s borders as Israel supports American influence in the region.

  • Jekyll

    Woke up quick at about noon
    Just thought that I had to be in Compton soon

  • Jekyll

    How liberal can it be with Jessica Valeniti’s sad stories?

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    It’s a new day

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    Part of the reason why cost benefit models are so popular is because business use them, however I think even other economics systems that would function on materialism like communism would have somewhat of the a similar problem with Sacred Values

  • Tanveer Wan Khanobi

    Lord almighty, did you just link to a liberal newspaper without any negative comments towards liberals?!

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