In A Taboo Exchange, an article in the July/August 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind magazine, Adam Waytz reported that a few recent studies have examined how people react when their most passionately held values are challenged. He defined a “sacred value” as more than just a strongly-held belief, but rather a moral stance on which the holder will not budge, no matter what the conditions.
Such sacred values certainly include religious beliefs, but Waytz noted that people exhibit such boundless commitment to other values as well: nationalism, loyalty to a political party, or even a sports team. Waytz projected that merely recognizing these issues may help resolve international disputes such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the growth of the Iranian nuclear program.
When offered cash to relinquish a sacred value, people tend to react irrationality. Financial incentives backfire. People respond to such offers with moral outrage; reacting viscerally, expressing anger and disgust, becoming increasingly inflexible in negotiations. Psychologist Philip E. Tetlock refered to such exchanges as “taboo trade-offs.”
This concept should readily apply to divorce settlement negotiations. While easily seen in the custody and parenting-issue context, it could also appear in discussions over support entitlement, recognizing financial or other contributions to the marriage, or dealing with the favorite chair or the family pet.
When sacred values are on the negotiating table, it pays to understand the psychology of the taboo trade-off. Waytz noted that conflicts involving sacred beliefs may be best resolved when both sides consider compromising something they hold dear. Choosing the right words may help, too. Emphasizing the dire, necessary nature of a trade-off may facilitate conflict resolution.
Recognizing the presence of a “sacred belief” or hot-button issue may be a crucial step when beginning settlement discussions. Counsel should be alert to validate the belief and to search for an appropriate “trade-off.” Simply throwing more money at a sacred position may have unanticipated and significant negative consequences.