Of Mice and Markets
Some goods, such as widgets, are freely bought and sold in markets without protest, whereas others, such as indulgences, are not. Some mice that have been bred for use in laboratory experiments turn out to be surplus to requirements and are subsequently sacrificed. Falk and Szech (p. 707) studied the effect that marketplace negotiation has had on experimental subjects' willingness to pay for the upkeep of these surplus mice. Individuals were willing to pay much more to save the mice, but market-like exchanges lowered these prices.
The possibility that market interaction may erode moral values is a long-standing, but controversial, hypothesis in the social sciences, ethics, and philosophy. To date, empirical evidence on decay of moral values through market interaction has been scarce. We present controlled experimental evidence on how market interaction changes how human subjects value harm and damage done to third parties. In the experiment, subjects decide between either saving the life of a mouse or receiving money. We compare individual decisions to those made in a bilateral and a multilateral market. In both markets, the willingness to kill the mouse is substantially higher than in individual decisions. Furthermore, in the multilateral market, prices for life deteriorate tremendously. In contrast, for morally neutral consumption choices, differences between institutions are small.
I was going to go with “Morals, Mice, and Markets” as the title for this post, but I just couldn’t resist the rare chance at a weak Steinbeck pun. These morally relevant mouse markets I speak of are those described wonderfully by Professor Armin Falk at his keynote speech at the International Conference on Consumer Rights (at which I gave a somewhat less gripping talk on European Net Neutrality). His talk, though somewhat less creatively named than I would have done, was an absolutely fascinating look at the potential effects of markets on moral behaviour and investigating whether people make decisions in a market situation which they would, for moral reasons, never make in a more proximate individual situation. It was a creative twist on the theme of consumer protection, for although the results might seem to suggest the need to restrict consumer behaviour in market situations to protect others rather than for their own benefit, he pointed out that putting people in less situations where they make decisions which go against their normal moral values could lead to consumers suffering from less cognitive dissonance and feelings of guilt and regret (even if we would have to pay more for smartphones and shoes without all that superbly handy child labour).
In his talk he discussed his experimental research (conducted by himself and Nora Szech, available here) to test this hypothesis, by putting participants in situations where essentially they had to decide if they would kill a perfectly happy, healthy mouse for the princely sum of €10. They did this by putting participants in one of three scenarios, having previously been shown a picture of the live healthy mouse, and a video of the gassing process, as well as being assured that this was not a thought experiment – a mouse would actually die. The scenarios were;
(1) an individual scenario where the participant is asked whether they would accept the €10 knowing that the mouse would die, or if they would refuse the money and the mouse lives. Essentially selling the life of the mouse for €10;
(2) a market scenario with just two actors, the participant as seller and one buyer. If they agreed to split the sum of €20 between the two them in any way the mouse would die, but if the seller (participant) refused any offer (even a €19-€1 split) the mouse lived. This was designed to find the average number of people who would settle for €10 or less to let the mouse become an ex-mouse in a market situation;
and finally, scenario (3) in which the set up was like the previous scenario, but with 7 sellers and 9 buyers, introducing an element of market competition and sellers undercutting each other.
If you want to keep your faith in the possibility of markets to support moral behaviour, or even your basic faith in humanity…. You might want to stop reading now.
Depressingly unsurprisingly, the results showed that a) a terrifyingly large number of people (45.9%) were happy to gas-chamber a mouse for €10, even in the individual scenario; b) significantly more people were indeed willing to sacrifice the mouse’s life for €10 in the market situations, (as predicted, even moreso in the 7 on 9 market situation than in the 1 on 1); and lastly that c) the average price required to sell out your rodent rescuee drops to bargain basement low levels after 10 rounds of trading in the multiple players market scenario (with some people going as low as €1, to become in indirect axe-wielder to our murine Tahvo Putkonen).
Herr Falk went on to explain his theories behind these effects, as well as the reveal that he’s not quite so heartless after all and that these mice were already on death row as they were surplus mice, unsuitable for experiments who would have been killed anyway due to the cost of keeping a bunch of mouse-slackers fed, watered and free from damp. So whilst he was careful not to actually lie to the participants for the purpose of the experiment (“we’re economists not psychologists – they lie to participants all the time” he explained), he did tactically leave them in the dark about the fact that these mice were already walking the green mile. He is, as such, now the proud owner of his own private army of adorable-but-useless mice.
The authors suggested that their findings may suggest that participation in markets erodes normally-held moral values. There are a number of reasons hypothesised to explain the results, such as:
- In the market scenarios, where there is more than one bargaining party to the transaction, the participants might feel their guilt shared and as such diminished;
- Knowing or observing that this kind of market action is going on with others, might make participants feel more acceptable or normal in engaging in the questionable actions;
- Particularly in the case of markets with more buyers than sellers, the participant (seller) may feel that their refusal to engage in the market will, from a consequentialist point of view, not make any difference, as someone else will do so anyway;
- The very action or participating in a market situation, may distract the participant from the consequences, and help to further obscure and distance the actual consequences.
As Professor Falk pointed out, this phenomenon would most likely be even more acute in real-world situations where consumers are almost completely shielded from the morally questionable practices which do into the production of their food, gadgets and other consumer goods. There are serious barriers in place, which obscure details such as working conditions, ethical resource management, treatment of animals, etc., from the decision-making processes of everyday consumers.
This talk also of course rekindled some cognitive dissonance of my own, regarding the use of animals in experimentation, especially given my views on the possibility of a graded, cognition-based, scale of animal rights, combined with the relatively high intelligence and social complexity amongst lab rats and mice. At the same time, the moral implications are hard to square with the almost unquantifiable good done by medical research which uses testing on rats and mice. Even if we do ever get to a point where we can replace the need for animal testing with, for example, personalised medicine and testing on cells and organic tissue derived from stem cells or even by using complex computer simulations, the question will remain as to whether or not it was necessary and/or ethical to use animal testing to get to the point where we might not need it any more. These and similar debates are currently raging on the topic of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, the continued need for such cells given the advances in induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and their ilk, as well as the fact that we probably only got far enough in our understanding of cell reprogramming due to the initial research on embryonic stem cells. But, that is a topic for another day…
Photo Credit: Nils J. via photopincc
A. Falk, N. Szech, “Morals and Markets”, Science, 2013; 340 (6133): 707. DOI: 10.1126/science.1231566
“Do Markets Erode Morals? Research Summary: Professor Armin Falk on Morality and Market Influences” HCEO, available at https://hceconomics.uchicago.edu/news/do-markets-erode-morals-research-summary-professor-armin-falk-morality-and-market-influences
“Do markets erode moral values? People ignore their own moral standards when acting as market participants, researchers say”, Science Daily, available at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130510124501.htm
“Are Monkeys More Moral Than people?”, The Undisciplined, at https://theundisciplined.com/2014/02/17/are-monkeys-more-moral-than-people/
“Consciousness, Ethics and Ravens”, The Undisciplined, at https://theundisciplined.com/2014/02/03/consciousness-ethics-and-ravens/