|Corporations and governments have co-opted the idea of the ‘social’ for their own ends. Is there anything we can do about it?|
Imagine walking into a coffee shop, ordering a cappuccino, and then, to your surprise, being informed that it has already been paid for. Where did this unexpected gift come from? It transpires that it was left by the previous customer. The only snag, if indeed it is a snag, is that you now have to do the same for the next customer who walks in.
This is known as a “pay-it-forward” pricing scheme. It is something that has been practised by a number of small businesses in California, such as the Karma Kitchen in Berkeley and, in some cases, customers have introduced it spontaneously. On the face of it, it would seem to defy the logic of free-market economics. Markets, surely, are places where we are allowed, even expected, to behave selfishly. With its hippy idealism, pay-it-forward would appear to go against the core tenets of economic calculation.
But there is more to it than this. Researchers from the decision science research group at the University of California, Berkeley have looked closely at pay-it-forward pricing and discovered something with profound implications for how markets and businesses work. It transpires that people will generally pay more under the pay-it-forward model than under a conventional pricing system. As the study’s lead author, Minah Jung, puts it: “People don’t want to look cheap. They want to be fair, but they also want to fit in with the social norms.” Contrary to what economists have long assumed, altruism can often exert a far stronger influence over our decision-making than calculation.
Such findings are typical of the field of behavioural economics, which emerged in the late 1970s. Like regular economists, behavioural economists assume that individuals are usually motivated to maximise their own benefit – but not always. In certain circumstances, they are social and moral animals, even when this appears to undermine their economic interests. They follow the herd and act according to certain rules of thumb. They have some principles that they will not sacrifice for money at all.
It seems that this undermines the cynical, individualist theory of human psychology, which lies at the heart of orthodox economics. Could it be that we are decent, social creatures after all? A great deal of neuroscientific research into the roots of sympathy and reciprocity supports this. Optimists might view this as the basis for a new political hope, of a society in which sharing and gift-giving offer a serious challenge to the power of monetary accumulation and privatisation.
But there is also a more disturbing possibility: that the critique of individualism and monetary calculation is now being incorporated into the armoury of utilitarian policy and management. One of the key insights of behavioural economics is that, if one wants to control other human beings, it is often far more effective to appeal to their sense of morality and social identity than to their self-interest.
This is symptomatic of a more general shift in policy and business practices today. Across various fields of expertise, from healthcare to marketing, from military training to finance, there is rising hope that strategic goals can be achieved through harnessing the power of the “social”. But what exactly does this mean? As the era of social democracy recedes further into the past, the meaning of the term is undergoing a profound transformation. Where once the term implied something concerning society or the common good, increasingly it refers to a technique of psychological intervention on the individual. Informal social connections and friendships are being rendered more visible and measurable. In the process, they are being turned into possible instruments of power.