Sacred values differ from material or instrumental values in that they incorporate moral beliefs that drive action in ways dissociated from prospects for success. Across the world, people believe that devotion to essential or core values — such as the welfare of their family and country, or their commitment to religion, honor, and justice — are, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable.
Counterintuitively, understanding an opponent's sacred values, we believe, offers surprising opportunities for breakthroughs to peace. Because of the emotional unwillingness of those in conflict situations to negotiate sacred values, conventional wisdom suggests that negotiators should either leave sacred values for last in political negotiations or should try to bypass them with sufficient material incentives. Our empirical findings and historical analysis suggest that conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, offering to provide material benefits in exchange for giving up a sacred value actually makes settlement more difficult because people see the offering as an insult rather than a compromise. But we also found that making symbolic concessions of no apparent material benefit might open the way to resolving seemingly irresolvable conflicts.
We offer suggestions for how negotiators can reframe their position by demonstrating respect and/or by apologizing for what they sincerely regret. We also offer suggestions for how to overcome barriers by refining sacred values to exclude outmoded claims, exploiting the inevitable ambiguity of sacred values, shifting the context, provisionally prioritizing values, and reframing responsibility.