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Markets 'erode moral values,' researchers find

Markets can influence whether actors in it are driven by morals - that is the outcome of an experiment conducted by economists at the Universities of Bonn and Bamberg. DW spoke to Nora Szech about her study.

DW: In your study, you gave people the choice between receiving money and having a mouse killed, or saving the life of the mouse by not accepting the money. What was the result?

Nora Szech: Our main result is that people decide very differently depending on whether they act in markets or outside of markets. We find that individually, outside of markets, people have difficulties in killing these mice, they don't want the money. In markets most people actually find it easier to kill the mice even for very small amounts of money.

Why is that? Did it come as a surprise to you?

There is a lot of discussion in the social sciences on whether market interaction affects moral values. We wanted to find out, and did guess that markets might erode moral values. But we were surprised by how intense the difference was. And let me add, these mice were surplus mice: they would have been killed because they were raised for animal studies, but it turned out they were not needed. Due to our study it was possible to save mice that otherwise would have been killed.

Were there any people who did not kill at all?

Yes, there were. About 15 to 20 percent of the people chose not to kill the mice.

Nora Szech

Nora Szech carried out the study with colleague Armin Falk from the University of Bonn

This was, of course, an artificial set-up. Even so, why do you think people tend to apply lower moral standards when there is competition?

It's artificial in the sense that we set up these markets, but it is not artificial in the sense that everything really happens. If you decide to save your mouse, it gets saved, and if you decide to take the money and kill the mouse, it really gets killed. People understand that.

So what drives greed in the market? I think there are several factors: for one thing, if you are with several people, it is easier to share the guilt. You may think you are not perfectly irresponsible, and you see that others violate moral norms, too. In larger markets, you might think, maybe my decision is not as important anyway, because there are so many people. I think this logic is important in larger markets and is very relevant for the markets we have in our society. It is difficult to believe that you can make a difference in these markets.

Could you transfer that to other situations, for instance, if I buy from a farmer directly, I'll be trading fairly with him but if I trade in food stocks it doesn't matter that much and I can be unfair?

There is a lot of detachment in these larger, organized markets, like stock markets but also supermarkets. You don't see where the products come from. It is difficult to say whether somebody really suffered for this product or not. Sometimes you really don't know and this helps to forget about your moral feelings.

Do you think people would have been more hesitant to kill humans for money rather than mice?

I would hope so. But on the other hand, when you look at our society and all the markets we have - such as markets for fashion and electronics - many products involve the suffering of other human beings. A lot of people buy these products and so support the suffering of other human beings. There have many articles in the news about how T-shirts are produced in Bangladesh, for instance; I think we are all aware of these examples.

Does that mean that in a globalized market, like in the fashion industry, people act completely irresponsibly or are there ways of changing that?

First of all, it is very important to become aware of the problem. We have seen in our study that there is a huge difference between the moral standards people express when deciding individually and when they act as market participants. I think people have to become more aware of what they are doing as market participants. They could get support. For instance, we need labels: In some industries we have quite good labels, but in others we don't, or at least not many. That would be important and where politics could help, too. The European Union could try to make a difference there.

A white mouse crawls on a man's hand

The study gave many of the mice a second chance at life

Do you think there are cultural differences between people from different societies when it comes to erosion of values through market mechanisms? Are there societies where people are more prone to stick to their values?

That would be interesting to study. There could be differences, also depending on how developed the markets are in a respective society. Moral standards may also be different. This is the first study on this topic, and generally we want to understand better how institutions affect our behavior, also group decisions.

What happened to the mice that survived your study?

They still live in small groups in cages. They - there are hundreds of them - have good conditions and live a happy vivid life with good food.

Nora Szech is a professor of industrial economy at the University of Bamberg.

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