Markets Make Us Less Moral

By Breanna Draxler | May 15, 2013 9:40 am

Most of us would agree that harming others on purpose and for no reason is immoral. Social scientists have long assumed that marketplaces are to blame for many a compromised moral. There’s no shortage of historical examples: take the slave trade, or buying indulgences from the church, for instance. Now science has weighed in to confirm this hunch: a marketplace degrades a person’s morals.

That was what German researchers found in an experimental set-up that put people’s morals up against money in a market.

The researchers split participants into three different groups that represented different market-type situations. In the first group, participants were presented with two options: A) receive 10 euros (about $13) for accepting the death of a lab mouse, or B) forgo the money and save the mouse’s life. (The mice in question were young and healthy but had failed to exhibit certain genetic traits, so they were no longer of use to the lab.)

Before making the decision, participants were shown a picture of a mouse and a video of the euthanizing process that would be used to kill the mouse. Of the 124 participants in this group, 46 percent said they would accept the mouse’s death in exchange for €10 or less.

A second group of 72 people participated in a bilateral market scenario, where one buyer and one seller interacted directly. The seller was given a mouse and told “the life of the mouse is entrusted to your care,” but he could sell it to the buyer, in which case the mouse would be killed. The buyer and seller could settle on a price of up to €20; the buyer got to keep the difference.

If they decided not to trade, neither person got any money and the mouse was allowed to live. In this second set-up, 72 percent of the sellers were willing to sacrifice the mouse for the money.

The third group was a multilateral market—seven buyers and nine sellers that could trade amongst themselves. As with the two-way market, 76 percent of sellers in this third group chose to accept the money (a mere €10 or less) despite the inevitable death of the mouse that would result.

Thus in a marketplace people on average valued the mouse’s life less than they did when individually asked. This is evidence, say the researchers, that market interaction lowers moral values as compared to individual actions.

This was confirmed when the experiments were run again but with coupons instead of mice (the side effect being losing the coupon instead of killing the mouse). With a non-living subject, market sellers gave up the coupons about as often as participants acting individually, indicating that the marketplace effects moral values but not neutral decisions. The results were published in Science last week.

The researchers have a few ideas about why markets may have such a negative effect on morality. In markets, since multiple people are interacting, the responsibility (and the resulting guilt) are shared and therefore lessened. The death is not wholly on any one person’s conscience. Markets are also a social endeavor, so social norms play a key role. Participants’ decisions may be swayed by how other participants act when determining what is appropriate. The third reason is simple distraction. When you’re so focused on the nitty gritty negotiation, you may not have the bandwidth to think about the moral implications of your decisions.

Whatever the reason, the researchers say the outcome is clear: markets make us more willing to fudge on our moral values.


Image courtesy of Stokkete/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: economics, market, morality

    this is prob true, but the qualities of markets that make it true are prob not unique to markets, prob common to most complex social interactions. as much as id like to read this as scientific proof of the moral iniquites of capitalism


      i guess i just wonder / doubt if the ‘reward system’ component implicitly accused by saddling ‘markets’ with this phenomenon is really at all consequential, especially since the speculative ‘ideas’ given by the researches in 2nd to last paragraph don’t involve or necessitate the reward component at all.


        if not, ascribing this phenomenon explicitly to ‘markets’ seems superfluous and ideological or something

        • marxidad

          Scientific studies are usually very specific to certain scenarios. The study does not say that it is unique to markets, just that markets seem to be *one* of the situations where you’ll find this kind of behaviour.

      • Breanna Draxler

        This is a good point, ASAP FLOPPY. There’s definitely a disconnect there. I’ll have to give the paper’s methods section another look. Thanks for weighing in!

  • Shane Milburn

    I think a key dynamic here may be that of “shared sacrifice/shared reward.” What would the result be if the total funds were divided across all participants? Similar to saying “I’m for reducing the deficit, but I’m not going to pay more than my fair share to do it.”

  • Hassan

    I agree with the concept. But I think “mouse scale” is not accurate, normally people get rid of mice.

    • Rebecca Wilson

      I thought about the value of the subject, too. I think though that I would still try to save the life of the mouse, even though I would set a mousetrap at home without hesitation. Another question to ask is whether there is any personal connection to the subject. I would be personally involved with a mouse that would be in my kitchen, destroying our property and food supply. A mouse who had never “done anything to me” wouldn’t warrant a senseless death.

    • marxidad

      Even with the mouse, people in the study hesitated to kill it for a few euros when the transactions were on a one-to-one level.

  • Joe Salvati

    Markets are evil? Seriously? As opposed to what? If you don’t have a “market” then you would have to have some sort of state control over normal transactions and business? Is that morally superior? Is there a lack of morality because of the death of a mouse? I have to reject the premise of the study because of what import is the life of a mouse (regardless of whether he dies a sensible death or not?) There is no immorality in capitalism. It is the only mechanism by which someone has the ability to better their lot in life based on their own hard work, intuition and resolve. Capitalism is about equality of opportunity and NOT about equality of outcome. The only thing you get with less capitalism is the overall degradation of everyone’s quality of life as you gradually sink lower and lower to find that common denominator of taking enough from the have’s to distribute what you can to the have not’s. This article is bullshit. Markets aren’t corrupt and if someone offers you money for a dead mouse, take it and run.

    • marxidad

      A market-based economy is less conducive to moral behaviour compared to something like a gift-based economy. The immorality and evil behaviour lies in the participants, not the system, but the system can make some behaviours easier to express than others. A profit-driven motive has been known to corrupt ever since there was prostitution.


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