Earlier this week, an article in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg reported that The Ol’ Pussy Grabber labeling soldiers who were killed, wounded, or captured as losers and those who served at all as suckers. When the Ol’ Pussy Grabber professed surprise at why people join and serve in the military asking what was in it for them? and called military personnel suckers and losers, he was demonstrating his transactional view of the world. He can see no other basis for human interaction other than exploiting others for personal gain and assumes that everyone else is trying to exploit him for their gain. It is an impoverished approach to life. It ignores that vast wealth of social interaction that makes life worth living and societies function.
Fortunately for us, the hell he caught for it shows that we have not been co-opted by his transactional approach to life. We still value helping those around us without the promise of an immediate reward. That the Ol’ Pussy Grabber doesn’t get it tells you the depth and severity of his mental illness, in this case narcissism. He is not one of us. He and his kind are still a minority.
Norms or Normative Behavior
The Ol’ Pussy Grabber’s transactional approach is known as market norms in the social science world. Market norms are those behaviors that occur because there is immediate and clear reciprocal gain for them. It is a tit-for-tat approach to life. It is the foundation of cynicism when taken to an extreme and excludes any sense of interaction for something other than personal gain.
Social norms are those behaviors that promote helping someone without an immediate return for the help. When you hold the door open for someone, you don’t expect a tip — unless you’re a door person or something — or for them to do you a favor personally. We like to think that it makes it more likely that someone will hold a door for us when we need it. It’s the pay-it-forward approach to life. It is the foundation for acts of kindness both big and small and help us all feel like part of a bigger whole.
The Problem with Market Norms or Transactional Relationships
The problems is that market norms do not provide the best motivation for doing things. We don’t work harder because we’re being paid to. In fact, there is evidence that we work hard in spite of being paid to work.
The reason that money doesn’t work like the Ol’ Pussy Grabber thinks it does is because money is an extrinsic motivator — something that occurs outside to make us do stuff. As opposed to intrinsic motivation, which is the desire to do something because you like doing it. Studies have demonstrated that monetary rewards alone do not produce the best results. People just don’t work as hard for money as they do for intrinsic enjoyment.
For all the doubters and skeptics out there, let’s take a quick wander through one of the studies that helped illuminate this particular principle (from Dan Ariely‘s Predictably Irrational). Let’s say that you were asked to bet on who would move more circles across their screen to a square in five minutes: the people paid $5.00 (US) to do this exceedingly tedious and meaningless task, paid $0.50, paid $0.10, or paid nothing. The people who are being paid, got their money up front before they moved a single solitary circle to the square. The people who aren’t being paid got no mention of money but were asked to do a favor for the experimenter.
If you said the people who were asked to do a favor, you were right! Let’s see how the results broke down. Those paid $5.00 drug on average 159 circles across the screen to the square, $0.50, 101, and no money, 168! Look at that. The folks doing a favor for the experimenter worked harder than those paid real live hard currency.
Still not convinced? Let’s take a second example Ariely provides: AARP asked lawyers to provide legal services to older adults for $30.00 an hour. They didn’t get a single lawyer accepting, but when they asked for volunteers, they got more than enough.
The lesson from both examples and more besides is that as soon as you start putting a monetary value on a service or behavior, people start using market norms, or they ask themselves is this amount of money worth doing this thing for? In the case of the lawyers, they said $30.00 was not worth their time, so most declined. When the study participants were paid money, they did the task, but didn’t try as hard as they could. They matched their effort to the amount they were paid. But when asked to do a favor, the participants used their social norms of how to act when agreeing to do a favor for someone. You give an honest effort when helping someone.
With the lawyer example, you could argue that there is a self-selection bias. The lawyers who were transactional like the Ol’ Pussy Grabber just didn’t volunteer in either case. There maybe something to this. But, the circle-to-square experiment and others like it suggests that most people will put in more effort when doing something without pay than with.
So, when asked to help others, volunteering is more motivating than remuneration. But, we still pay people to work including military personnel. Like the Ol’ Pussy Grabber said, They knew what they were signing up for.
Transactional Values or Market Norms as Anti-Social
These studies demonstrate that intrinsic motivations and following social norms produces more effort when doing tasks, but that doesn’t mean that market norms or being transactional actually hurts our society. A study by Kathleen Vohs, Nicole Mead, and Miranda Goode cited by Ariely suggests otherwise. In this study, participants were initially asked to unscramble sentences, you know, they were given a sentence with the words out of order and asked to assemble it into an order that made sense. For example, poopy is Trump head would become Trump is a poopy-head, right? One set were given neutral sentences and the other money-based sentences. After completing the sentence task, they were asked to arrange some disks into a square — a harder task. They were told that they could ask for help. The researchers were interested in whether priming participant’s with thoughts of money would change their behavior.
They found that those with neutral sentences averaged about three minutes of effort before asking for help and the money-based sentences averaged about five minutes.
Hah! Money helped people work longer, put in more effort! Yes, the people who primed to think about money tended to be more self-reliant in Ariely’s words. But, the researchers also found that this group of people were (a) less willing to help other participants who seemed confused or (b) help someone who spilled a box of pencils. Both situations were set up by the experimenters to determine which group would be willing to help more. Additionally, they found these trends for the money-primed group:
- more selfish,
- more self-reliant,
- spent more time alone,
- selected individual tasks over teamwork tasks, and
- sat further away from those they were working with
None of these findings imply that market norms are strictly bad and should be avoided. They have their place in our society. It is to say, that when you need people to act more selflessly, like say during a pandemic, then you should shift away from market norms and towards social norms.
When we have national leadership like the Ol’ Pussy Grabber and Mitch McConnell who emphasize transactional market norms — the takers versus the makers, for example — then we find people start behaving like those participants who were primed with money. They are less inclined to help and work with others.
When we pay our taxes, we are not literally buying state services. We are paying into the shared pot and funding the services that are needed by everyone not just us. When people complain that their hard earned tax dollars are going to support lazy takers, i.e. people of color, even though white people make up more of the people on government assistance and red states take more from the common pot of tax dollars than they pay in, we are using market norms and make ourselves less likely to behave as a coherent cohesive society than if we were using social norms and wanting to simply help our fellow citizens who are in need. In this sense the Ol’ Pussy Grabber and the Repubes are destroying the foundations of culture by dividing us.
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