The Psychology of the Unthinkable
March 19, 2010 8:02 AM   Subscribe

The Psychology of the Taboo Trade-Off. A set of studies about issues that are considered "sacred" that can have an effect on the trade-offs involved in foreign policy. (via)

(Note that the term "sacred" is not necessarily applied to religious values. In fact, the idea that non-religious values can become "sacred" is what is most important here.)
posted by charred husk (12 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
posted by caddis at 8:50 AM on March 19, 2010

As a corollary, if you're a leader of a group and want to promote your group's set of "sacred values", one of the best ways may be to offer money to anyone who leaves.
posted by LSK at 9:40 AM on March 19, 2010

Very interesting.

I wonder if any research has been done into competing, or perhaps conflicting sacred values.

The only example I can think of offhand is in the anti-abortion movement. For the sake of argument, let's assume that their claims of being motivated by a holding fetal life as a sacred value is true. On the face of it, this would seem to imply support from the anti-abortion movement for sex education and contraception, but this is not the case. Polling shows most anti-abortion people are also anti-sex ed and anti-contraception.

I'm going to guess that this implies that they view opposition to sex education and contraception as a sacred value as well. At least I can't think of any other explanation that doesn't start calling into question the truth of their claim to hold fetal life as a sacred value.

Which bring us to the conflict of sacred values. On the one hand they must know, intellectually, that contraception and sex education reduce the abortion rate more successfully than protests, harassment, etc do. On the other hand they hold opposition to those things as a sacred value.

I wonder about the psychology there, and if what I'm perceiving as lies and/or motivation by slut shaming rather than respect for fetal life from the anti-abortion crowd are, in fact, rather examples of the cognitive dissonance resulting in holding competing sacred values.

Assuming that's the case, how the heck can we find common ground, or even ground for reasonable debate and discussion? They hold sacred values that simultaneously demand an end to abortion, and produce abortion, which means the only possible course of action they see is the completely non-realistic idea that people will be abstinent until they want kids and never, ever, have sex except for procreative purposes.

If, in fact, they really do believe all the stuff they claim to, then I think the situation looks even more bleak and dire than it did when I was believing they were liars and motivated by misogyny and a desire to engage in slut shaming.
posted by sotonohito at 9:51 AM on March 19, 2010 [8 favorites]

That's a really good observation, sotonohito. Part of me feels that the recent sidebarred comment by salishsea could have some impact on this line of thought. How much of an important difference is there between someone who truly holds something sacred and someone who is lying (in salishsea's use of the word) about it being sacred because they just really haven't thought or engaged the issue in depth? The difference could be in the access available for engaging with these people on neutral terms. Then maybe I'm just grasping at optimistic straws.
posted by charred husk at 10:12 AM on March 19, 2010

This passage in the linked PDF is eerily accurate in describing reaction to this last year's health care reform in the U.S.:

...when observers believe that decision makers have entertained [forbidden] thoughts, they will respond with...:
- lower thresholds for [attacking] norm violators;
- anger, contempt, and even disgust toward violators;
- enthusiastic support for norm enforcement (punishing violators) and
- metanorm enforcement (punishing those who shirk the burdensome chore of punishing deviants).

And even the Republicans who vote against it are now vulnerable to attack from the Right because they entertained the debate:

...the model also postulates that the longer observers believe that decision makers contemplated compromising sacred values, even if they ultimately do the right thing..., the more intense the outrage they direct at those decision makers.
posted by stevis at 11:29 AM on March 19, 2010

For the sake of argument, let's assume that their claims of being motivated by a holding fetal life as a sacred value is true. On the face of it, this would seem to imply support from the anti-abortion movement for sex education and contraception, but this is not the case.

Well this is not the case, because the value they hold "sacred" is not human life. I know plenty of "pro-life" advocates who have no problem with "just war" or with the death penalty. And who have no interest and feel no responsibility towards the fetus once it is born.

If you see the pro-life movement (as I do) as a proxy for the "sacred value" of keeping women "in their place", then it all makes sense and there is no conflict of value.
posted by three blind mice at 11:42 AM on March 19, 2010

stevis It also, I think, explains liberal anger at Obama. Our sacred value against torture was violated by Bush, and we expected Obama to join us in righteously punishing the transgressors, instead he protected them thus showing that he did not, at the very least, share the "sacred" part of our sacred value against torture.

Then, when Obama violated the sacred value against putting people in cages, forever, with neither trials nor charges, it resulted in all the described symptoms among liberals.

three blind mice Well, that's my basic position, but I'm open to the possibility that I'm wrong, and looking for explanations as to how my reasoning on that topic could be flawed. To be perfectly honest, I think that if the pro-criminalization crowd really are telling the truth that's a vastly worse problem than if they are, as I suspect they are, lying about their motives.

I will, however, point out that my analysis never said I was working from the assumption that they held life qua life as a sacred value, only that they held fetal life as a sacred value. I think holding fetal life as sacred while holding other life as non-sacred is foolish, but I don't see any necessary paradox in that position. I think it's a bad position, but it could be held without hypocrisy or logical inconsistency.

charred husk I'm less optimistic. 1/3 of anti-choice women are intimately familiar with women who have abortions, as 1/3 of anti-choice women have had abortions, that intimate familiarity doesn't change their position. The abortion rate among active members of the anti-choice community has been found to be identical to that of the general population, which (from my POV anyway) tends to indicate a rather astonishing level of hypocrisy. "Abortion is evil and morally wrong; unless I need one!"
posted by sotonohito at 12:11 PM on March 19, 2010

If, in fact, they really do believe all the stuff they claim to, then I think the situation looks even more bleak and dire than it did when I was believing they were liars...

They do, and it is.
posted by LordSludge at 12:38 PM on March 19, 2010

sotonohito: "a rather astonishing level of hypocrisy"

Yeah, that really is just my optimism talking. Part of the point to the article and studies (in my mind, at least) was that these "sacred" issues are things you have to either work around or make proper accommodations for, not plow through them and hope they won't be a problem. Your original concern stands - no matter the reason for holding the issues "sacred", anti-choicers holding stances on both abortion and birth control are pretty much impossible to negotiate with. I don't like the places where that leads at all, but there it is.
posted by charred husk at 12:40 PM on March 19, 2010

It's interesting how people here apply this to people they disagree with rather than on their own sacred values.

The article also implies that put the right way, with the right words, people here could be convinced to oppose Obama's health care plans and abortion.

Why didn't they try seeing if with the right word's the US commitment to no nuclear weapons in Iran would be given up?

The article shows under some circumstances you can get some people to change. Whether it really generalizes to other issues is questionable.
posted by sien at 1:29 PM on March 19, 2010

sien While there may be a sacred component to the dedication of some Iranians to atomic weapons, I think for the most part it's quite rational.

There are a category of nations which the USA will, when it feels its collective manhood threatened, attack. Which particular nation is chosen pretty much at random. No one with any sense at all wants their nation to be in that category.

There is only one method which has yet proven to be successful for moving your nation into the category of "will not be randomly attacked by the USA", and that is possession of atomic weapons. North Korea will never be attacked by America, likewise Pakistan. It is, therefore, completely rational for the general citizenry of Iran, regardless of how they feel about their current leadership, to desire that their nation possess atomic weapons. They know, as well as anyone else, that being armed with atomic weapons is the only way they can avoid the possibility of random attacks from the USA.

If I were Iranian, even if I loathed and despised the current government, I'd want my nation to be armed with as many nukes as it could get.
posted by sotonohito at 5:45 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Holy crap, interesting topic of research, but the reactions to this article in the comment board on the SciAm site are strange.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:39 PM on March 19, 2010

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