Markets and Morality

market-morality-flashAre Shoppers Fairer? asked John Tierney in his New York Times column and blog.

Do markets and morality – as we like to definite fairness in modern societies – reinforce one another? Does shopping at Wal-Mart, as the fair-minded people in Missouri do, strengthen one’s tendency to follow the golden rule in dealing with strangers?

Turns out that in a multi-country anthropological experiment, Americans shoppers scored higher in a test of fairness toward strangers than those surveyed in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The researchers played the game “dictator” with folks around the world: The person who is in the “dictator” role is given a sum of money and told they can keep it all, give it all away or share some part of it with another player, whose identity remains secret.

How much would you give? Half? A bit less than half?

That’s what standard American ideas of fair would suggest… but that’s not necessarily everyone’s definition of equity. Some nomad communities would only share a quarter of the prize. Indeed, the study finds, “most hunter-gatherers, foragers and subsistence farmers were less inclined to share.”

Why? Tierney explains:

In explaining attitudes toward fairness, Dr. Henrich and his colleagues found that the strongest predictor was the community’s level of “market integration,” which was measured by the percentage of the diet that was purchased. The people who got all or most of their food by hunting, fishing, foraging or growing it themselves were less inclined to share a prize equally.

Grocery shopping may seem an unlikely form of moral education, but the researchers argue in Science that the development of “market norms” promotes general levels of “trust, fairness and cooperation” with strangers.

Next time you’re headed out for some retail therapy, this can be your new excuse: “Honey, I have to shop. It’s what keeps me fair-minded, generous and virtuous.”

And I think it’d be only fair to share your purchases with me, y’know, because of the good advice.


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