Testing Doux Commerce in the Lab

In a famous priming experiment it was shown that changing the name of a prisoner’s dilemma type problem from “The Community Game” to “The Wall Street Game” reduced the amount of cooperation. The suggestion is that Wall Street evokes in the mind concepts of exploitation and self-regarding behavior thus making these behaviors more likely. Wall Street is a very particular aspect of capitalism, however, what about the idea of markets and trade more generally? Montesquieu famously noted that

Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners.

In fact, market economies are associated with greater levels of trust and cooperation, so might we not expect markets and trust to be associated in the mind? Al-Ubaydli, Houser, Nye, Paganelli, and Pan (the list includes several GMU colleagues) prime experimentees with words associated with markets and then have them play a trust game; they find evidence in support of the hypothesis:

Using randomized control, we find evidence that priming markets leaves people more optimistic about the trustworthiness of anonymous strangers and therefore increases trusting decisions and, in turn, social efficiency. Given the general mechanisms by which priming affects behavior–that an individual’s mental representation of markets is the result of the individual’s experiences with markets–we can interpret our results as evidence in favor of the hypothesis that market participation increases trust.

…Absent markets, economic interactions with strangers tend to be negative. Market proliferation allows good things to happen when interacting with strangers, thus encouraging optimism and leading to more trusting behaviors. Participation in markets, rather than making people suspicious, makes people more likely to trust anonymous strangers. Our results seem therefore to corroborate the idea of doux commerce….We stress, however, that this is cautious evidence; a wider array of evidence is necessary for the solidification of this conclusion.


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