Chapter Summary: “Crowding Out Morality: How the Ideology of Self-Interest Can Be Self-Fulfilling” by Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz’s chapter, “Crowding Out Morality: How the Ideology of Self-Interest Can Be Self-Fulfilling,” argues that modern Western society is structured on the (incorrect) assumption that self-interest is what motivates human behavior, and that this structure influences people to actually become this way.  Situations can create individual motives, according to Schwartz, and therefore motives are not always exogenous to situations.

Barry Schwartz

Schwartz begins with three examples of how morality can be “crowded out.” That is, when an individual has two reasons to engage in a certain behavior, such as (1) “because I am a citizen or community member,” or (2) “because I will receive financial compensation,” the two motives compete. Given a society where a free-market, self-interest-driven mindset is already dominant, option two frequently wins out. Not only does it win out, but it does so in a way that produces results detrimental to the public good:

  • Example 1: A daycare center in Israel tries to solve the problem of parents picking up their children late by fining latecomers. The parents perceive the fine as a “price” for coming late, and more arrive late than when the disincentive for coming late was just that it was the “wrong thing to do.”
  • Example 2: When Swiss citizens were asked whether they would be willing to have a waste dump in their community in exchange for financial compensation, fewer individuals (25% versus a previous 51%) agreed to allow the waste dump than when the same question was asked with no compensation offered—that is, when they were asked to put up with the dump “because they were citizens.”
  • Example 3: When college students were asked to help out with a study that required them to drag a ball across a screen for three minutes, students put in more effort, dragged more balls across the screen, when they were doing it for free than when offered financial compensation—that is, when their only reason to do it was “as a favor.”

Schwartz then explains that the view that human behavior is guided by self-interest is an “ideology,” that is, an idea technology (Schwartz defines technology as any object or process created by humans that changes the conditions of daily life) that is based on untrue ideas. Schwartz analogizes to B.F. Skinner’s claim that all human behavior is controlled by its rewarding or punishing consequences: Though this is not a fundamental, universal fact of human nature, once society is structured in such a way that presumes this characteristic, what began as ideology becomes perceivable as reality. For example: the final stages of industrial capitalism: eventually each worker’s task became so tedious and trivial that the only motivation to work hard was the wage, a rewarding consequence. A view of the criminal justice system that took this perception to heart would, similarly, conclude that the only way to prevent crimes is to punish people so harshly that they will determine that it is not in their self-interest to do so. The ideology to reality jump can happen in three ways: by changing how people perceive their own actions, through “self-fulfilling prophesy,” or by changing institutional structures so that they are consistent with the ideology.

Schwartz takes Alan Fiske’s framework that societies are governed by four fundamental forms of social relations—communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing, and explains that societies vary by which form of social relations is dominant. While market pricing may be the dominant form in Western society, other social spheres are vitally important because the sensibilities learned in these other spheres such as reciprocity, fairness, and the importance of friendship, provide a vital moral check on dealings done in the relations governed by market pricing.

Schwartz offers two examples in which lessons learned outside of the market system effect individuals’ perceptions of market transactions:

  • Example 1: When asked whether a store selling shovels increased the price of these shovels during a snowstorm from $15 to $20 had behaved fairly, 82% of respondents stated that it did not.
  • Example 2: Respondents were given two situations. The first was where a shop, in response to downward wage pressure caused by rising unemployment in the area, decreased a current employee’s wage from $9 an hour to $7. In the second, the current employee leaves and a new employee is paid the current going rate of $7 an hour. While 83% of respondents said the first situation was unfair, 73% said that the second was fair.

While these examples appear to show that individuals have not been fully consumed by self-interest ideology, Schwartz points out that this is probably because this sphere is not all-encompassing, at least not yet. Schwartz argues that these respondents’ concern for fairness was learned, and that similarly people may learn to perceive these situations as fair rather than unfair. Schwartz offers two examples of this:

  • Example 1: MBA students, when given the same scenarios, generally believed that all efforts to maximize profit were fair.
  • Example 2: Economics students were more likely than non-economics students to defect from prisoner’s dilemma games, and this difference increased the longer the economics students studies economics.

The danger, therefore, according to Schwartz, is that the more pervasive the market pricing form of social relations become, the more and more scarce will be the opportunities for learning these other sensibilities—such as perceptions of fairness—that benefit our society.


One Response to Chapter Summary: “Crowding Out Morality: How the Ideology of Self-Interest Can Be Self-Fulfilling” by Barry Schwartz

  1. Jake says:

    Great Anna!

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