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The Rational Emotions exchange, Part 2: Are Israelis too competitive for peace?

[additional-authors]
March 25, 2015

Eyal Winter, is the Silverzweig Professor of Economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Professor of Economics the University of Leicester. His research interests include microeconomics, finance, game theory, and behavioral economics.

This exchange focuses on Winter's book “Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think” (PublicAffairs, 2014), in which Winter attempts to refute the dichotomic distinction between emotions and rationality, claiming emotions are in fact often rational. Recently published in English, the Hebrew edition came out about two years ago and is still doing well in Israeli bookstores. (full disclosure: I was the editor in charge of the Hebrew edition, but have nothing to do with the English edition). You can find part 1 here.

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Dear Prof. Winter,

Let's move from Iran to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In one story that appears in the book you refer to a study that found Israelis to be less generous than the members of other nations when having to make an offer in a game.

You write that the “study found significant differences between different cultures… Players in Israel tended to propose the lowest offers… Japan was not far behind Israel, in second place in terms of the selfishness of the offers made by proposing players. Players in Slovenia and the United States were much more generous in their offers”.

Tell us why and how Israelis are different, and if Israel's problem with reaching a peace agreement might be the result of our tendency to be cheap with our peace offers?

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

In a broad range of games played in the laboratory, Israeli subjects behave more competitively than most other nationalities. In some of these games (such as the Prisoners' Dilemma) this behaviour may seem greedy and inconsiderate to an external observer. Israeli researchers often express discomfort and embarrassment at international conferences when they present the results of experiments conducted in Israel, along with concern that highlighting this phenomenon could serve the interests of peddlers of base anti-Semitic slurs. But this is a wrong way to interpret the behaviour of Israelis in such games. I don't think it comes from  excessive greediness, and callous lack of concern for others.  I believe that the root of this phenomenon is in the dissonance that exists between Israeli individualism on the one hand and the special place that giving and solidarity have in Israeli society on the other hand. In times of crisis, Israelis exhibit a ready willingness to cast aside personal interests and voluntarily join together for mutual assistance that is rare even by the most demanding international standards.

Israeli society could not have survived a bitter one-hundred-year-long conflict if it were composed of greedy individuals each looking out only for their immediate narrow interests. However, the  overwhelming solidarity and mutual concern does not find expression in laboratory experiments. The reason for this, I believe, lies in the fact that the Israeli society adores two other values, i.e.,  individualism and success. These values are the driving forces  behind Israel's economic, scientific, and technological successes. When crises erupt, Israeli will be drawn towards the value of solidarity and pitching in for the common good.  But in calmer situations the average Israeli seeks to express other values, such as competitiveness and success, as a respite from the heavy burden of solidarity. To balance out that burden, Israelis might allow themselves, in these situations, to be somewhat more individualistic and competitive than their European or American colleagues, who are less often called upon to rally to solidarity.

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