Study Finds Grocery Store Shoppers Are Honest Folk

The people on that People of Walmart website may wear some ugly t-shirts, but at least they’re honest when it comes to dealing with strangers. According to a new study that looked at how markets, religion, and the size of a community impact concepts of fairness and punishment, Walmart grocery shoppers in Missouri came out on top in terms of treating the other side fairly and punishing selfishness.

The study’s authors observed more than 2,000 people in different types of communities around the world by getting them to participate in a two-player game called Dictator. Here’s how the New York Times describes it:

One player, the dictator, was given the authority to keep the entire prize [cash equivalent to a day’s work for that area] or share part of it with the other, unseen player, whose identity remained secret. Along with this power came the assurance that the dictator’s identity would also remain secret, so that no one except the researcher would ever know how selfish the dictator had been.

People in hunter/gatherer societies tended to keep more of the money for themselves, and also tended to not punish selfish players as drastically. (The people in Missouri actually chose harsh punishments that cost themselves money.)

The authors say they found the that the presence of a marketplace seemed to have the strongest impact on the fairness/selfishness concepts:

In explaining attitudes toward fairness, Dr. Henrich and his colleagues found that the strongest predictor was the community’s level of “market integration,” which was measured by the percentage of the diet that was purchased. The people who got all or most of their food by hunting, fishing, foraging or growing it themselves were less inclined to share a prize equally.

The study wasn’t designed to prove that free market consumers are awesome and hunter/gatherers suck, but rather to explore how large groups of people develop and follow moral codes in general. As far as how fashion codes develop, that’s still a mystery. I think it has something to do with an ugly t-shirt cabal.

“Moral Lessons, Down Aisle 9″ [New York Times]
“Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment” [Science]