Markets Shape Human Behavior (And Not Always For The Better)

If markets are to maximize individual well-being, then it is important that markets serve human preferences, but do not shape them. Advertising is one way in which markets can shape human behavior, causing us to want a good we may not have previously known existed. Another way is the psychological mechanism of priming. Priming works by exposing its subjects to something that will later impact their thinking. In this case, subjects were exposed to something money-related, i.e. a stack of monopoly money on a table or a computer screen saver with dollar bills floating in the water. Daniel Kahnemahn writes in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”: 

“Money-primed people become more independent than they would be without the associative trigger. They persevered almost twice as long in trying to solve a very difficult problem before they asked the experimenters for help, a crisp demonstration of increased self-reliance. Money-primed people are also more selfish: they were much less willing to spend time helping another student who pretended to be confused about an experimental task. When an experimenter clumsily dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, the participants with money (unconsciously) on their mind picked up fewer pencils. In another experiment in the series, participants were told that they would shortly have a get-acquainted conversation with another person and were asked to set up two chairs while the experimenter left to retrieve that person. Participants primed by money close to stay much farther apart than their nonprimed peers (118 v 80 centimeters). Money-primed undergraduates also showed a greater preference for being alone.”

Kahnemahn summarizes, “living in a culture that surrounds us with reminders of money may shape our behavior and our attitudes in ways that we do not know about and of which we may not be proud.” 

Markets are invaluable for producing wealth, and they are almost certainly among the best (if not the best) system that human beings can come up with to produce and distribute goods and services. The problem is that there has recently been a push to expand markets into more and more areas of human life. As Michael Sandel writes,“…we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. The difference is this: A market economy is a tool – a valuable and effective tool – for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.”


5 thoughts on “Markets Shape Human Behavior (And Not Always For The Better)

  1. Pingback: Markets and Moral Breakdown | Faith and Public Policy

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