Shopping Teaches Morality and Fairness


shopping cart

Last week, I blogged an item about a new study in Science showing that markets teach people to treat strangers more fairly. Today, the New York Times' science columnist John Tierney does some further reporting on that study. Tierney begins by asking in which society is a person more likely to learn to treat strangers fairly?

a) Move to a village in the Amazon and go foraging with the indigenous Tsimane people.

b) Move to a Dolgan and Nganasan settlement on the Siberian tundra, herd reindeer and join the Russian Orthodox Church.

c) Visit a Himalayan monastery and follow instructions to "gaze within" and "follow your bliss."

d) Join a camp of nomadic Hadza hunter-gatherers sharing giraffe meat and honey on the Serengeti savanna.

e) Join a throng of Wal-Mart shoppers buying groceries on the Missouri prairie.

Well, the Siberian church might impart some moral lessons, but your best bet is to go shopping, at least by my reading of the experiments reported in the current issue of Science. It doesn't have to be Wal-Mart, by the way — any kind of grocery store seems to have an effect. Wal-Mart just happens to be popular with the exceptionally fair-minded residents of Hamilton, a small rural town in northwestern Missouri. They scored higher in a test of fairness toward strangers than did any of the less-modern communities in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

To test fairness norms in different societies, some of which were more integrated into markets than others, the researchers had members play three different economic games. As Tierney explains:

[The researchers] found wide cultural variations by observing more than 2,000 people in 15 small communities participate in a two-player game, called Dictator, with a prize equal to the local pay for a day's work.

One player, the dictator, was given the authority to keep the entire prize or share part of it with the other, unseen player, whose identity remained secret. Along with this power came the assurance that the dictator's identity would also remain secret, so that no one except the researcher would ever know how selfish the dictator had been.

The most lucrative option, of course, was to keep the whole prize and stiff the anonymous partner. But the Missourians on average shared more than 45 percent of the prize, and some other societies were nearly as generous, like the Ghanians living in the city of Accra and the Sanquianga fishermen on the coast of Colombia.

But most of the hunter-gatherers, foragers and subsistence farmers were less inclined to share. The Hadza nomads in the Serengeti and the Tsimane Indians in the Amazon gave away only a quarter of the prize. They also reacted differently when given a chance, in variations of the game, to punish another player for hogging the prize.

Selfishness offended the Missourians so much that they would punish the player even though it cost them money. But the members of traditional societies showed little inclination to punish others at their own expense. "There are lots of norms in these small-scale societies for how to treat one another and share food," says [lead author Dr. Joseph] Henrich. "But these rules don't apply in unusual situations when you don't know anything about the kinship or status of the other person. You don't feel the same sense of responsibility, and you act more out of self-interest."

Tierney does not speculate about what happens when markets are distorted or even destroyed, so I will again:

The upshot is that efforts to extract people from markets (e.g., communism, socialism, fascism) encourage them to revert to the innate savagery of dealing fairly only with kin and fellow tribespeople.

Go here to read Tierney's excellent article.

NEXT: "A spokesman for Ratner didn't immediately return a call for comment."

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  1. “But the members of traditional societies showed little inclination to punish others at their own expense.” Could it be that they don’t feel the need to punish period?

    1. and yet they take more from their unknown compatriots than missourians. the law of nature is harsh and if you don’t get yours now, you never will. If you look at the transaction as part of an ongoing series of transactions where you might be on the other side of the table fairness dictates you balance your losses now with your gains later.

      1. I have been to poor countries and it is the custom to give you what little they have in food and very humbling because it is necessary to eat and drink it.

        1. Especially because you have to worry about getting dysentery.

          Actually, I suspect this custom might be some sort of “share my germs!” pact. Also, If you’re willing to eat their food you’re taking a risk and showing that you trust them not to poison you.

          1. Hazel, I hope that was a fucking joke.

            1. Mostly joking …. *mostly*

  2. So anybody seen the giallo homage Amer yet?

  3. I can’t help but think to all the liberals who claim that conservatives are voting against their own best interest. These same folks may just be willing to pay out their own pocket to punish what they see as liberal unfairness.

  4. More likely, they just don’t see an upside for themselves. You don’t punish members of your clan, you just don’t, except for the most extravagant offenses against the clan. You don’t see abusing or fleecing outsiders as punishment at all, merely the natural order of things.

    And you don’t see any upside to enforcing norms via “punishment” – the clan operates on internal politics and mores, and you don’t expect anyone outside the clan to abide by or fairly enforce norms, so what’s the point?

    1. Uh huh, and isn’t that basically restating the conclusions?

  5. This reminds me of a Russian fable I posted a week or two ago in regards to MNG; seems apropo here as well:

    A peasant, who had nothing, was envious of the cow his neighbor had and the milk it produced.

    He was angry, jealous and felt it wasn’t fair his neighbor should be lucky and he be without.

    He happened upon a djinn who offered him one wish.

    The vindictive peasant, consumed with envy still about the inequity wished his neighbor’s cow was gone, poof, no more.

    Now neither of the men had a goat and everything was fair and equitable.

    1. er.. neither had a goat cow. Preview.

  6. I bet if there was a pickle aisle on the Serengeti, then the asshole who keeps opening pickle jars and putting them back at my local STop & Shop would be ritually beaten, skinned, and hung as warning to others,

    1. I suspect you are right. I’ve read some papers on the social norms among barbarians. Taking revenge is practically obligated in their societies. If you don’t take it, everyone in the tribe will shun you, steal your cattle, rape your wives, and sell your children into slavery.

      I’m only *slightly* exagerrating.

      1. Sorry, I should have said *bedouins*.

  7. Some academic fuck is going to bitch about the results claiming a cultural bias.

    1. Yeah, a cultural bias toward fairness.

    2. Their definition of fairness deviated from the commonly understood definition of fairness — forcing responsible people to give entitled assholes things that they want but don’t deserve.

      That’s a bias of societies that aren’t being eaten from the inside by ideological cancer.

  8. Some academic fuck is going to bitch about the results claiming a cultural bias.

    I’m sure MNG and his advanced terminal degree will be along presently.

  9. Cue Chad showing up to tell us that game theory proves that markets are inefficient, libertarianism is wrong, and we need a Hobbsian government to make us behave properly.

    1. Hazel Meade, this is a sincere question, with no hidden agenda: When you say “a Hobbesian government,” are you using “Hobbesian” as an emphasizer, or are there actual and/or conceivable extra-Hobbesian types of government? I ask because I’ve been under the impression that all governments are variants of Hobbes’s model.

      1. Sorry, I only meant to allude to Hobbes idea that the state is necessary to civilize our barbarian asses, since the concept bears some similarity to Chad’s way of thinking about the subject.

        But, one could argue that a constitutional republic with strictly limited powers (as the framers intended) doesn’t qualify as Hobbsian. Explicitly reserving powers to the states “or the people” suggests that people might just be able to do without certain aspects of the state.

        1. Will mull, thanks.

  10. Was there some incentive in this test to give some part of the money to the other participant in the test? Because if the test really gave the “dictator” the entire prize, and then they had the option to give some of the money to some random stranger who had done nothing to benefit the “Dictator”, then it would be a socialist act to give the stranger some of the money. So perhaps the test merely measures the degree of leftist or socialist thinking among the participants.

    I’m sure that the narrative framing would make a huge difference in whether the “Dictator” gave away money or not — so what was the actual framing?

    If it was framed as “We’re giving both of you $100, but you as the Dictator have the power to steal as much of the other person’s money as you want. Now, go ahead and meet with this person for ten minutes.”

    you would likely get vastly different results than if it was framed as:

    “We’re going to give you $200. This money is your money, to do with as you please. Now, you can share some of this with a random, faceless stranger who you will never see or meet or interact with in any way at all, or you can keep it all. It’s entirely your choice how you dispose of your money here.”

    1. The way the Dictator game works is that the receiving player has the option to refuse the allocation. In which case neither player gets anything.

      So the incentive is to avoid pissing off the other player by not giving him enough.

      1. Well, then with that framing the rational act in America is to give the other player about 35% to 40% of the loot. If you get to meet the other person face-to-face and interact a bit, you might get a better feel for how leftist the other person is, and thus more likely to take umbrage over perceived “unfairness”.

        So, again, this test to at least some extent measures the degree of leftness of the participants.

        1. Well, keep in mind that the money in the dictator game is a windfall, not earned cash. That changes the psychology substantially.

        2. Its not a test of leftness, its a test of what you expect the other person to do (or yourself to do in that position) because its a one shot to have money or not, no negotiating. So if the other person knows what percentage of the money you’re giving him, he’s judging your fairness in the situation, how much you’re paying him for his agreement.

  11. This is such a nice article. The mistery and advice behind this article is smiply awesome. Nicely you have given the description of shopping. chaga

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