Adam Waytz in Scientific American:
Consider the classic hypothetical scenario: Your house is on fire and you can take only three things with you before the entire structure becomes engulfed in flames. What would you take? Laptops and external hard drives aside, people’s responses to this question differ wildly. This diversity results from people’s flexibility in ascribing unique value to objects ranging from a hand-scrawled note from a loved one to a threadbare t-shirt that others might consider worthless.
The critical quality that leads people to treat rookie cards like rosaries is that of the sacred, whereby an object becomes worthy of boundless reverence, commitment, and protection. As diverse as people are in ascribing sacred status to possessions, they are equally varied in which values they consider sacred, a diversity that can breed substantial conflict. The abortion debate, for example, often presents a divide between those who consider woman’s “right to choose” sacred versus those who consider a fetus’ “right to life” sacred.
A recent study in the journal for Judgment and Decision Making assessed how the Iranian nuclear defense program has become a sacred value and how this affects negotiation over Iranian disarmament, an issue of growing global concern.