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.