The Neuroscience Guide to Negotiations With Iran

Wondering whether the historic nuclear talks will succeed or fail? Study the brain.
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A PET scan of the human brain (Wikimedia Commons)

“Imagine being told that you cannot do what everyone else is doing,” appealed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in a somber YouTube message defending the country’s nuclear program in November. “Would you back down? Would you relent? Or would you stand your ground?”

While only 14 nations, including Iran, enrich uranium (e.g. “what everyone else is doing”), Zarif’s message raises a question at the heart of ongoing talks to implement a final nuclear settlement with Tehran: Why has the Iranian government subjected its population to the most onerous sanctions regime in contemporary history in order to do this? Indeed, it’s estimated that Iran’s antiquated nuclear program needs one year to enrich as much uranium as Europe’s top facility produces in five hours. 

To many, the answer is obvious: Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability (which it has arguably already attained), if not nuclear weapons. Yet the numerous frameworks used to explain Iranian motivations—including geopolitics, ideology, nationalism, domestic politics, and threat perception—lead analysts to different conclusions. Does Iran want nuclear weapons to dominate the Middle East, or does it simply want the option to defend itself from hostile opponents both near and far? While there’s no single explanation for Tehran’s actions, if there is a common thread that connects these frameworks and may help illuminate Iranian thinking, it is the brain.

Although neuroscience can’t be divorced from culture, history, and geography, there is no Orientalism of the brain: The fundamental biology of social motivations is the same in Tokyo, Tehran, and Tennessee. It anticipates, for instance, how the mind’s natural instinct to reject perceived unfairness can impede similarly innate desires for accommodation, and how fairness can lead to tragedy. It tells us that genuinely conciliatory gestures are more likely and natural than many believe, and how to make our own conciliatory gestures more effective.

Distilled to their essence, nations are led by and comprised of humans, and the success of social animals like humans rests on our ability to control the balance between cooperation and self-interest. The following four lessons from neuroscience may help us understand the obstacles that were surmounted to reach an interim nuclear deal with Iran, and the enormous challenges that still must be overcome in order to reach a comprehensive agreement.


Lesson 1: Humans pay high costs to reject unfairness

An outline of an ultimatum game (Christopher X Jon Jensen and Greg Riestenberg)

More than three decades of lab experiments show that humans are prepared to reject unfairness even at substantial cost. This is based in our biology: A decade of studies using brain imaging shows that human neural activity, particularly in the insula cortex region, reflects the precise degree of unfairness in social interactions.

In a classic example known as the ultimatum game, one individual gets an amount of money (e.g. $10) and proposes a split with a second player (e.g. $9 for herself, $1 for the second person). The other individual then decides whether to accept the offer (in which case both get the split as proposed) or reject the offer (in which case both players get nothing). Despite receiving an offer of free money, the second player rejects offers involving less than 25 percent of the money around half the time. In essence, unfairness has a negative value that outweighs the positive value of the money they would otherwise receive.

Even non-human primates show evidence of hardwiring to reject unfairness. In one famous study, two capuchin monkeys were instructed to carry out the same task, but one was repeatedly rewarded with sweet red grapes while the other received cucumbers. In response to such blatant unfairness, the cucumber-fed monkey threw a conniption fit.

The motivation to reject unfairness, and the humiliation that results from it, can become deeply embedded in national narratives and decision-making. In 1951, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh rejected years of inequitable profit-sharing agreements with the British-run Anglo Iranian Oil Company by nationalizing Iran’s oil industry, even at the cost of British reprisals. Britain imposed an embargo on the purchase of Iranian oil, bankrupting Tehran’s coffers and culminating in the infamous 1953 CIA/MI6-led coup against Mossadegh, who spent the remainder of his life under house arrest.

Six decades later, this impulse to reject perceived unfairness has seemingly motivated Iran’s nuclear ambitions far more than an actual need for an indigenous nuclear energy program. In just the last few years, Iran has suffered well over $100 billion in lost foreign investment and oil revenue to defend a nuclear program that can only meet 2 percent of the country’s energy needs. In other words, Iran has debilitated its chief sources of income—oil and gas revenue—in order to pursue a project with little comparable payoff.  Prominent nuclear physicists such as Princeton’s Frank von Hippel estimate that it would cost Iran at least 10 times less to import enriched uranium from abroad, as most nations that use nuclear energy now do (including, increasingly, the United States).

In an interview with NBC News’ Bob Windrem, former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian conceded that the global opprobrium Iran has endured for its nuclear program defies economic logic. “If you are talking about nuclear, I will tell you no, [the pressure] isn’t worth it, definitely,” he said. “But the nuclear issue today for Iranians is not nuclear—it's defending their integrity, independent identity against the pressure of the rest.”

Why, Tehran asks, should the six global powers—five of whom collectively possess several thousand nuclear weapons—dictate terms to Iran? Why are countries like India and Pakistan—non-signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that clandestinely acquired nuclear weapons—accepted members of the international community, while Iran (an NPT signatory) is considered an international pariah? Who is Israel, a country believed to possess more than 100 nuclear weapons, to cry wolf about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

We may not agree with these Iranian sentiments, but neuroscience tells us that rejecting perceived unfairness, even at substantial cost, is a powerful motivation unto itself.


Lesson 2: The Hegelian tragedy of fairness

An Iranian woman walks past the former U.S. embassy in Tehran. (Reuters/Raheb Homavandi)

Neuroscience also affirms that perceptions of fairness are highly subjective. We can illustrate this using the ultimatum game described above, where one individual gets an endowment (e.g. $10) and proposes an offer (e.g. a $7 to $3 split) that the other individual accepts or rejects.

One study, for example, manipulated individuals’ subjective judgment of what constituted a fair enough offer by making participants first take a short quiz to “earn” the endowment. After receiving the money in this way, they went on to make more low offers than usual in the ultimatum game. The subjects may have felt these lower offers were only fair, since they had worked to earn the cash, but this view wasn’t shared by the second party, who as normal rejected the low offers, leaving both sides with nothing.

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Presented by

Nicholas Wright and Karim Sadjadpour


Nicholas Wright is a neuroscientist and an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Karim Sadjadpour is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment.

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