Saturday, December 27, 2008

On moral character

At the end of weekly sojourn to Izmir today, I ended up sipping coffee with a friend who is an academic economist. My friend, a native of Izmir, started complaining about illegal parking in the city. While I tend to think such issues in the concept of tragedy of the commons and incentive issues (cars don't get towed much in Turkey), my friend seemed to think that it is lack of morality and selfishness at the core, which, coming from an economist, surprised me. However, a new paper surprisingly (not only to me but also to previous research) supports my friend's arguments. FT columnist Tim Hartford summarizes:
Simon Gächter, Benedikt Herrmann and Christian Thöni invited subjects in 16 cities across the world to play a “public goods” game, in which players had to choose, repeatedly, between contributing to a pot for the benefit of all or selfishly hoarding their own resources.

Earlier research had found that if players were given the option of punishing the selfish by removing their resources, they did so and near-full co-operation quickly emerged. Gächter and his colleagues found that, in many societies, the opposite occurred: rather than accepting their punishment and co-operating, those who had been punished tended instead to take revenge.

The results were striking: co-operative behaviour seemed to flourish in countries where market democracies were long established.

The Americans, Australians, Britons and Swiss were the least likely to inflict recriminatory punishment. Russians, Greeks and Saudis were most prone to reprisals. Co-operation was best sustained in the US, Denmark and Switzerland, and fell apart in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Greece.

Co-operation and aversion to vengeance are hardly the sole definitions of moral character; and this was merely a laboratory game. Still – despite a long history of reasonably free markets in the US, Australia, the UK, Switzerland and Denmark, important aspects of morality in those countries seem to have held up rather well.
I am not sure if I buy Tim's explanation (link between free markers and morality), but I definitely found the article interesting. Also of interest are the supplementary materials for the paper: the graphs on page seven are particularly interesting. BTW, if you are into these things, Benedikt Herrmann, one of the authors, has another joint paper titled Betrayal aversion: Evidence from Brazil, China, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

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