The Debiasing Dollar: How to Get Markets in Everything
By Bryan Caplan
Critics of the free market often object to commercialism on aesthetic grounds. Caruso, Vohs, and Baxter’s recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (“Mere Exposure to Money Increases Endorsement of Free Market Systems and Social Inequality,” 2012) suggests that critics should also object to commercialism on instrumental grounds. Mere exposure to money makes people more pro-market:
[S]ubtle reminders of the concept of money, relative to non-money concepts, led participants to endorse more strongly the existing social system in the United States in general (Experiment 1) and free market capitalism in particular (Experiment 4), to assert more strongly that victims deserve their fate (Experiment 2), and to believe more strongly that socially-advantaged groups should dominate socially-disadvantaged groups (Experiment 3).
The paper’s highlight tests whether subtle exposure to money leads to unconventional pro-market views:
[P]articipants read about the current organ transplant system in the United States. They were told that because organs such as kidneys are in short supply, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) uses a systematic formula to determine which patients get priority. In addition to assessing the likelihood that the transplant will work, this formula aims to ensure that the socially disadvantaged get preferential access to kidneys because they tend to lack other alternatives (such as dialysis) and therefore are most in need.
Participants then learned that although this is the existing system in the United States, in other countries there is a free market for organs. Just as wealthier and more successful people can afford to purchase relatively better medical care if they choose, in a free market system anyone can buy or sell organs. Accordingly, priority does not necessarily go to those who are the most needy or disadvantaged, but to whoever can most afford to pay.
Result: Fully 37% of Americans subtly exposed to money supported a free market in organs – versus 0% of Americans who were not so exposed.*
[M]oney does not necessarily increase endorsement of the existing system (among Americans); rather, money specifically increased endorsement of a system based on principles of a free-market economy.
Though these are experimental results, the samples are admittedly small. I’d really like to see a large-scale replication. Still, unlike the paper’s authors, I find the results heartening. Since I think most humans suffer from severe anti-market bias, I’m always on the look-out for debiasing strategies. If this paper’s right, we can treat anti-market bias by immersing them in a world where money is ubiquitous. Markets in anything psychologically pave the way for markets in everything.
* Key caveat: The result didn’t generalize to non-Americans: subtle exposure to money reduced their support for organ markets from 25% to 14%.