Sacred values -- as when land becomes "Holy Land" -- sustain the commitment of revolutionaries and some terrorist groups to resist, and often overcome, more numerous and better-equipped militaries and police that function with measured rewards like better pay or promotion. Our research with political leaders and general populations also shows that sacred values -- not political games or economics -- underscore intractable conflicts like those between the Israelis and the Palestinians that defy the rational give-and-take of business-like negotiation. Field experiments in Israel, Palestine, Nigeria, and the United States indicate that commitment to such values can motivate and sustain wars beyond reasonable costs and casualties.
So what are the practical implications of these findings? Perhaps most importantly, our research explains why efforts to broker peace that rely on money or other material incentives are doomed when core values clash. In our studies with colleagues in Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Iran, the Levant, and North Africa, we found that offers of material incentives to compromise on sacred values often backfire, actually increasing anger and violence toward a deal. For example, a 2010 study of attitudes toward Iran's nuclear program found that most Iranians do not view the country's nuclear program as sacred. But for about 13 percent of the population, the program has been made sacred through religious rhetoric. This group, which tends to be close to the regime, now believes a nuclear program is bound up with the national identity and with Islam itself. As a result, offering these people material rewards or punishments to abandon the program only increases their anger and support for it. Predictably, new sanctions, or heightened perception of sanctions, generate even more belligerent statements and actions by the regime to increase the pace, industrial capacity, and level of uranium enrichment. Of course, majority discontent with sanctions may yet force the regime to change course, or to double down on repression.
Understanding how this process plays out over time is a key to helping friends, thwarting enemies, and managing conflict. The ultimate goal of such research is to help save lives, resources, and national treasure. And by generating psychological knowledge about how culturally diverse individuals and groups advance values and interests that are potentially compatible or fundamentally antagonistic to our own, it can help keep the nation's citizens, soldiers, and potential allies out of harm's way. Our related research on the spiritual and material aspects of environmental disputes between Native American and majority-culture populations in North America and Central America has also revealed surprising but practical ways to reduce conflict and sustainably manage forest commons and wildlife.
The would-be defunders of social science denounce an ivory tower that seems to exist only in their imagination -- willfully ignoring evidence-based reasoning and results in order to advance a political agenda. Only $11 million of the NSF's $7 billion-plus budget goes to political science research. It is exceedingly doubtful that getting rid of the entire NSF political science budget, which is equal to 0.5 percent of the cost of a single B-2 bomber, would really help to produce life-saving cancer research, where testing for even a single drug can cost more to develop than a B-2. Not that we must choose between either, mind you.
Social science is in fact moving the "hard" sciences forward. Consider the irony: a close collaborator on the "sacred values" project, Robert Axelrod, former president of the American Political Science Association, recently produced a potentially groundbreaking cancer study based on social science modeling of cancer cells as cooperative agents in competition with communities of healthy cells. Independent work by cancer researchers in the United States and abroad has established that the cooperation among tumor cells that Axelrod and colleagues proposed does in fact take place in cell lines derived from human cancers, which has significant implications for the development of effective treatments.