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God And The Marketplace

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I wrote a check for ten pounds of boiled crawfish not too long ago, a common transaction in these parts when mudbugs are in season (you Northerners don't know what you're missing). What's remarkable about this exchange is the assumed degree of trust and fairness displayed by the total strangers involved. The merchant assumed my check was good and I took it for granted that I was heading home with ten pounds of tasty crustaceans. In this case, as with countless others daily across the globe, the assumptions proved valid.

Trust and fairness -- the marketplace cannot function without them. Hunter-gatherers don't need well-functioning markets, but for the rest of us they are indispensible. A highly vexing evolutionary question is how humans moved from traditional small-scale self-sufficient societies to large-scale complex ones highly dependent on market exchange. Among traditional people, trading resources and information with outsiders is rare and fraught with suspicion. By contrast, the modern urban dweller regularly acquires goods and information from total strangers, rarely worrying about the integrity of those interactions. How did "market norms" of trust and fairness come to rule our everyday lives when moderate xenophobia is our more natural state? Some recent studies have demonstrated the critical role God may have played in this evolutionary transition.

Researchers often use economic games to test people's propensity to trust others and treat them fairly. One such game is the investment game. There are two players: a proposer and a responder. The proposer is given a sum of money which he or she may allocate in any proportion to the responder. For every dollar given to the responder, the researcher adds three. The responder is then given an opportunity to return money to the proposer. So imagine that the proposer gets $100 and he gives all of it to the responder. It then gets tripled ($300). If the responder gives half back to the proposer, then both end up with $150. All of this, however, depends on trust and fairness. In terms of rational self-interest, proposers should never give any money to responders since they might not give any back. However, if proposers can trust responders and responders treat proposers equitably, then both stand to reap even greater rewards by working together.

Economists Jonathan Tan and Claudia Vogel tested German university students using the investment game (Journal of Economic Psychology, 29, p. 832). Prior to playing the game all subjects were given questionnaires assessing their religiosity. Information about religiosity was available to proposers when the investment game began. The interesting finding was that if the proposer was religious, then he (she) showed greater trust in a religious responder. If the proposer was not religious, he (she) showed equal trust (or mistrust) in responders regardless of the responder's religiosity. In other words, the presence of religion helped religious people find trustworthy others. Trust invested in religious responders turned out to be well-placed. Responders high in religiosity returned more money to proposers compared to those low in religiosity.

One reason why religious people are more trusting and trust-worthy may be because religious people across the globe are more unquestioningly dedicated to upholding moral norms. Psychologists Quentin Atkinson and Pierrick Bourrat recently completed a large-scale cross-cultural review of moral attitudes and concluded that religious beliefs are critical to the seriousness with which people regard moral transgressions (Evolution and Human Behavior, 32 p. 41). Their study used data from the World Values Survey where over 350,000 individuals from 87 different countries were interviewed. The survey asked people about their religious beliefs as well as their attitude concerning how justifiable certain moral transgressions might be. People were asked if such things as littering, not paying a bus fair, taking a bribe, or cheating on a spouse were always, never, or sometimes justifiable.

Results showed that those who believed in a personal God and heaven and hell were significantly less likely to find the various moral transgressions justifiable compared to those who did not. Why might religious people hold less compromising attitudes on moral transgressions? One possibility is that they believe they are under constant judgmental scrutiny (from an omnipresent personal God) and that their moral (or immoral) actions determine their afterlife destination (heaven or hell). These particular religious beliefs are common to world religions such as Christianity and Islam. A third study suggests that beliefs typical of world religions may have been important in creating the conditions necessary for the emergence of well-functioning markets.

A global collaboration of researchers headed by anthropologist Joseph Henrich studied a cross-cultural sample of fifteen different societies from North and South America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania (Science, 327, p. 1480). The fifteen societies varied in their degree of adherence to a world religion (the Hadza from Tanzania were 0% on this while the Tsimane of Boliva were 100%) and in their degree of market integration (a sample from Missouri was 100% on this while the Yasawa from Fiji Island were only 21% -- market integration meaning the percentage of household calories purchased from the marketplace as opposed to procured by the household itself).

Subjects in each sample were tested on three economic games (dictator, ultimatum, and third party punishment games). Each of these games was similar to the investment game in that they pitted self-interest against norms of fairness and trust. Both market integration and adherence to a world religion were significant predictors of fairness in the economic games. In other words, if someone was from a society where most of the calories were obtained from the marketplace and/or most of the people practiced a world religion, then that person was more likely to demonstrate fairness and trust in the economic games.

Collectively these studies show that the moral commitment that breeds trust, trustworthiness, and fairness are tightly connected to religious beliefs. This adds empirical weight to the argument that an important evolutionary function of religion was to galvanize cooperation among increasingly large groups of unrelated people. In particular, the omniscient, omnipresent, morally judgmental "big God" of world religions may have been an important foundational block upon which markets could be erected. "Small" gods of traditional religions may have fallen short in this challenge because they were too parochially biased to effectively "share" cross-culturally.

God and mammon are typically opposed to one another. This research suggests an ironic connection. Modern societies with their market generated wealth may owe their emergence, at least in part, to the God of world religions who commanded that we treat others fairly (at least with regard to business transactions) even when they weren't our kin or tribesmen.

Around the Web

Religion, Media, and the Marketplace - Rutgers University Press

Religion and the Marketplace | NeoAmericanist