In conflicts over beliefs and values, symbolic gestures matter more than reason or money

When battles are waged over values and ideologies, you can’t bribe or reason your way to peace. That’s the stark message from a new psychological study of people in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Land - a solid resouce - can become a moral issue when prefixed by the word ‘holy’.The fight over the land of Israel/Palestine has raged for over a century and the peace process has been difficult, lengthy and often stagnant. All the while, lives continue to be lost in skirmishes and suicide attacks. Perhaps it’s time to put the situation under some scientific scrutiny.

A huge number of modern conflicts are fuelled by differences in opinions and beliefs, rather than grabs for power or land (at least on the ground level).

Even if the foundation of a dispute is not initially a moral issue, it can quickly become one. Land, for example, is a solid resource that can be completely transformed into something much more by adding the word ‘holy’ in front of it.

In these situations, people tend to forgo a rational weighing up of pros and cons in favour or making decisions with an intuitive moral compass. Jeremy Ginges and colleagues from the New School for Social Research studied the effects of this switch against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Through a series of psychological experiments, they worked out that in these circumstances, the power of symbols is far greater than that of currency or logic.

They surveyed over 1,800 from three different groups: Jewish Israeli settlers, Palestinian refugees, and Palestinian students (half of whom were members of Hamas or related organisations).

Ginges asked the participants to consider hypothetical scenarios where they would have to compromise over issues that were particularly relevant to them. The Israeli settlers were asked about their willingness to exchange their land for peace, which would involved them having to relocate. The Palestinian refugees had to consider giving up their right to return to their former homelands. And the Palestinian students were asked to consider Palestine relinquishing sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Symbolic compromises are essential for engaging with moral absolutists.Unsurprisingly, all the participants were reluctant to compromise. But Ginges found that they fell into two camps based on the strength of their convictions.

The first, who he termed the ‘non-absolutists’ expressed no more than a strong preference against any compromises. The second group, the ‘moral-absolutists’, had elevated the respective issues to the status of sacred values and were more fervently against losing any ideological ground.

For example, about half of the Israeli settlers felt that the Jewish people should never cede part of the ‘Land of Israel’ not matter the cost or benefit. The other half opposed the loss of land but did not rule it out under extreme circumstances.

So far, so predictable. But the real surprise came when Ginges offered the participants the same compromise but with a rational incentive to sweeten the deal. The incentives included peace, resulting from the end of all hostilities, or money, in the form of substantial donations from the US or the European Union.

Faced with these added carrots, the two camps behaved very differently. The non-absolutists tended to take a pragmatic stance and softened their responses. After all, in rational terms, the extra benefits are better than nothing.

A Palestinian woman at MashaBut the moral-absolutists from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides showed even more outrage than before and an even greater number supported a violent response. For these people, bribes or appeals to reasons were just making things worse.

Symbolic incentives had the opposite effect. Moral-absolutists were more willing to compromise over their own sacred values if they saw that the other side was prepared to do the same.

For example, the Palestinian refugees were more prepared to recognise Israel’s right to exist if Israel would in return recognise the historic legitimacy of the refugees’ right to return. They were less angry about the thought of compromise and less supportive of violent responses or suicide attacks.

The swings in opinion were small but significant – elections in the Middle East have been settled by much smaller majorities.

It did not matter if these symbolic gestures altered the costs or benefits of the compromise, and indeed, in most cases they did not. It didn’t even seem to matter if the deals would be successfully carried out, and those surveyed were not confident that they would be.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is not amenable to reason or financial incentives.Amazingly, when you consider that this conflict regularly takes the lives of hundreds of people, it was the gesture that counted. It was the fact that one side showed willingness to even budge on matters of principle that prompted the other to do the same.

It just goes to show that when people promote their ideas to the rank of beliefs, they risk losing the ability to view those issues rationally.

Ginges has a reason for this. He believes we are almost programmed to avoid weighing things up in terms of costs and benefits when they concern our values or beliefs, preferring instead to rely on a moral compass. Indeed, we have such an inherent distaste for attempts to measure moral commitments in such a calculating way that such attempts are likely to be met by outrage and anger. So it was with the Israelis and Palestinians surveyed in this study.

In these situations, attempting to resolve the situations through logical arguments or financial bargaining can seriously backfire. Symbolic trade-offs hold much greater power in ensuring that peace can be achieved.

Reference: Ginges, Atran, Medin & Shikaki. 2007. Sacred bounds on rational resolution of violent political conflict. PNAS 104: 7357-7360.

Images: Photo of Palestinian woman and Israeli soldier by Justin McIntosh.


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Our sense of fair play lives on the right side of the brain

Humans, above all other animals, value fair play. Now, neuroscience reveals that the importance of justice in our lives is governed by a small area in the right hemisphere of our brains that appears to suppress our natural selfish tendencies.

A stranger walks up to you and a friend and offers to give you both £100. As always, there is a catch – your friend must choose how to split the money between you. Accept his offer, and you both keep your respective shares; reject it, and you both come away empty-handed. Now imagine your friend offered you a single pound. What do you do?

Most people would reject the offer to spite the friend. Even though you would financially better off if you accepted, you friend’s proposal is unfair and rather insulting. Clearly, economic status is not the only thing at stake here.

Psychologists use this ‘Ultimatum Game’ to investigate the role of justice in human interactions and the results are very consistent. Usually, people who are offered a quarter of the stake or less will reject it, even if the sum is several months’ income (a rare case of justice triumphs over capitalism!)

Our sense of fair play is controlled by the right DLPFC. The human sense of fair play is unique in the animal kingdom. For other species, selfless deeds can be interpreted as a means to some future beneficial end.

We on the other hand, seem to be strongly motivated by a social sense of justice. Those that play fairly are rewarded, and those that don’t, like you friend here, are punished.

Now, Daria Knoch and colleagues at the University of Zurich have discovered that this desire for justice rests on a small section of the brain – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or DLPFC – constantly suppressing our more selfish urges.

Brain imaging studies have shown that this region is strongly activated when people play the Ultimatum Game, and especially when they receive unfair offers.

The DLPFC is implicated in dealing with conflicting thought processes and allows us to plan our behaviour in order to reach a goal. Knoch and her fellow researchers believed that the DLPFC may allow a person to weigh up their desire for financial gain with their sense of fair play.

They tested their idea by using low-frequency magnetic stimulation to temporarily shut down this part of the brain while people played the Ultimatum Game.

Usually, players only accepted the lowest possible offers about 9% of the time. When Knoch switched off the DLPFC on the left side of the brain, players became more tolerant and accepted low offers 15% of the time.

In both cases, they took longer to respond to unfair offers than fair ones. But if the right DLPFC was inactivated, players became five times more accepting of bogus offers. 45% took away even the lowest sums, and for 33%, every single offer was one they couldn’t refuse.

When interviewed later, the forgiving players were completely aware that they were being hard done by. They just did not feel that it was worth turning down the money over. Tellingly, they took the same amount of time to respond to both fair and unfair offers.

So the right DLPFC is not important for deciding if something is fair, but it is crucial for our ability to weigh up fairness with our own selfish materialistic impulses.

This balance only seems to kick in during situations where assessing fairness has a social impact. When Knoch pit her players against a computer instead of a human, they accepted low offers two in every three games, regardless of whether their DLPFC was active. While the gains are still low, there is little point in punishing an inanimate opponent and most people opt for the money instead.

Knoch’s findings help to make sense of other studies of patients with damage to the right frontal area of the brain. Often, these patients have the ability to make normal judgments but lack the ability to react to them accordingly.

Indeed, psychopathic disorders that involve excessive selfishness and a failure to conform to social norms tend to disproportionately involve damage to the right side of the brain.

Together, these findings paint a compelling picture, reminiscent of childhood cartoons. The conflict between our left and right brain hemispheres is like having a devil on our left shoulder telling us to go down the selfish route, and an angel on our right shoulder, pushing us down the just one.

Knoch, Pascual-Leone, Meyer, Treyer & Fehr. 2006. Science Epub 5 October 2006.

The Lady Macbeth effect – how physical cleanliness affects moral cleanliness

Cultures and religions across the world have long made links between physical cleanliness with moral purity. Now a series of clever psychological experiments reveal just how deep these links run, and how people can literally wash away their sins.

Lady Macbeth washes herself to alleviate the guilt of Duncan's murder. “Out, damn spot! Out I say!” In Macbeth’s fifth act, Lady Macbeth treacherous murder of King Duncan takes its toll and she begins obsessively washing her hands to alleviate her guilty conscience. Now, some four centuries after Shakespeare penned his play, scientists have found that physical and moral cleanliness are just as inextricably linked as he suggested.

The link between bodily cleanliness and moral purity is evident throughout the world’s cultures. Cleansing ceremonies are common in religions. Christians and Sikhs literally wash away their sins through baptism, while the act of wudu sees Muslims prepare for worship by cleaning their bodies. Our language too reveals hints of an overlap – a ‘clean conscience’ is free of guilt, while the word ‘dirty’ commonly describes thieves and traitors.

Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist from Northwestern University have now revealed the strong links between unblemished hands and stain-free hearts in a series of clever psychological experiments.

They asked two groups of people to remember a good or bad deed that they did in their past. They were then asked to fill in the missing letters in three incomplete words: W_ _H, SH_ _ _ER and S_ _P. Remarkably, those who remembered unethical deeds thought of cleaning-related words (like shower, wash and soap) x times more often than other words that could equally have fit (wish, shaker, step). Those who remembered ethical actions showed no such preference.

In another experiment, the duo wrongly informed a different group of people that they were taking part in a study investigating links between handwriting and personality. They asked each person to copy a first-person short story, where the protagonist either helped or screwed over a colleague.

Later, the subjects were asked to rate certain household products in terms of desirability. Those who copied selfish stories were much more likely to want cleaning products like Dove soap and Crest toothpaste compared to those who copied selfless tales. Both groups showed equal preferences for random goods like batteries and post-its.

Clearly, memories of moral indiscretions, even if they are not one’s own, bring thoughts of cleanliness to the front of the mind. Zhong and Liljenquist believe that physical acts that reduce our levels of physical disgust have a knock-on effect in making us feel morally purer. After all, physical and moral disgust are very similar, with repulsive smells or comments eliciting the same facial reactions and activating overlapping brain regions.

Washing away your sins - does it really work?But does it really work? Does cleansing truly absolve our minds of our sins? In a final experiment, the researchers find that, to an extent, it does. People were once again asked to describe a past wrong and some were allowed to wipe their hands with an antiseptic wipe. They were then asked if they would help out another graduate student by helping to pay for a research study. 74% of those who were not offered the wipe agreed. But many of those who wiped their hands also removed their moral stains, and only 41% of them offered help. Physical cleansing effectively halved the chances of future seflessness.

While physical cleanliness clearly goes some way towards restoring moral integrity, it would be foolish to assume that hygiene is a miracle cure for guilt. As Zhong and Liljenquist themselves admit, “There are surely limits to the absolution afforded by a bar of soap.”


Zhong & Liljenquist. 2006. Science 313: 1451-1452.

How Big Brother keeps us honest

Even selfish people can act selflessly when their reputation is on the line. Now, a simple experiment reveals just how honest people become when they feel that Big Brother is watching them.

The wallet problem - would you take it if you thought someone was watching?Imagine that you’re walking along a quiet street and you see a wallet lying on the pavement. Would you take it? Now imagine the same situation with a small difference – the wallet has a red circle drawn around it. While many people would be tempted in the first scenario, almost no one would touch the wallet in the second.

The key difference is that the lone wallet was most likely dropped accidentally by a passer-by. But the encircled wallet was clearly placed and marked by someone, who may well still be watching. And there is nothing that keeps people more honest than the presence of a watchman.

Explaining honesty

Social experiments like these are of great interest to biologists because they tell us more about the nature of selfishness and altruism. In recent years, selfishness has become something of a biological buzzword and many influential writers have cast living things as self-serving vessels acting for the benefit of their genes. In this harsh light, individuals co-operate with each other only if they reap a personal reward.

But some acts of altruism, particularly human ones, are harder to explain. We are often kind and generous to others, even if they are unrelated (and so share no genes) or are unlikely to ever repay the good deed. Is this true selflessness, or is there something else going on?

Image is everything

One theory is that such selfless acts do provide benefits – they raise the reputation of the do-gooder in the eyes of their peers. Some lab experiments have supported this idea by showing that people co-operate more strongly if they know they are being watched.

Now, Melissa Bateson and colleagues at the University of Newcastle have shown just how strong this effect with a cunning psychological experiment. Rather than study subjects in an artificial environment, they chose to run a simple test on the other unwitting members of their university’s Division of Psychology in their own coffee room.

The walls have eyes

For years, Bateson had put up a friendly notice reminding staff members to pay for their tea, milk and coffee by putting money into an honesty box. To run her experiment, she made one small change – she added an image banner to the top of the notice which alternated on different weeks between some flowers and a pair of eyes.

Being watched makes people more honestEach time, different eyes were used of varying gender and expression but in all cases, they were staring straight at the reader. When she compared the amount of money collected from week to week, with the amount of drink that people bought, the results were striking.

On average, people paid almost three times more for their drinks when the pair of eyes watched over them. When the image changed from flowers to eyes, the payments always went up and when they were changed back, they always went down. The mere appearance of Big Brother prompted people towards greater heights of honesty.

Being watched

It’s very unlikely that the eyes made the staff members consciously believe that they were actually being watched. After all, the room’s layout ensured that cheats who didn’t pay up would never be caught by their colleagues.

Instead, Bateson believes that the eye images probably set off unconscious and automatic reactions in people who viewed them, a sort of mental reflex. Her theory is that our brains are very keenly attuned to cues that indicate that their behaviour could affect their reputation.

The presence of onlookers could be one such cue, and indeed, human brains have special neurons that are primed to respond to eyes and faces. The effect of such cues must be very strong indeed, since the relatively weak stimulus of an image of eyes produced such strong changes in behaviour.

Being human

But what does this say about us? Are we truly all self-serving hypocrites, helping each other solely to further our status? Clearly not. For a start, even the images of flowers prompted staff members to contribute small amounts of money to the honesty box. If we were all the wholly selfish creatures that reductionists might have us believe, then even these paltry payments might be unexpected.

But more importantly, the responses to the eye images were sub-conscious, rather than active decisions. A selfless act consciously designed to further one’s status might be robbed of its valour. But a selfless act based on an instinctive reaction is a selfless act nonetheless.

If this experiment tells us anything, it is that safeguarding our reputation, for whatever reason, is very much part of being human.

Reference: Bateson, Nettle and Roberts. 2006. Biol. Lett. 2: 1744-9561.

Related posts on morality:
Our sense of fair play lives on the right side of the brain
The Lady Macbeth effect – how physical cleanliness affects moral cleanliness

Other posts on psychology: 
In conflicts over beliefs and values, symbolic gestures matter more than reason or money
Why music sounds right – the hidden tones in our own speech
Impulsive brains are primed for drug addiction