Something a little odd in Russell Brand's Revolution


We clearly weren't going to get a deep and complex understanding of economics in Russell Brand's little manifesto for a better world, Revolution. Nor, given that his amanuensis appears to be Johan Hari, should we have expected one. But to get the result of one of the more famous psychological/economic experiments the wrong way around is still pretty impressive:

Slingerland explained, between great frothing gobfuls of munched hazelnut, that this inherent sense of fairness is found in humans everywhere, but that studies show that it’s less pronounced in environments where people are exposed to a lot of marketing. “Capitalist, consumer culture inures us to unfairness,” he said. That made me angry.

The anger there is justified. For all of the experimental evidence points entirely the other way, that capitalist, consumer (the two being linked because only this capitalist free marketry has ever produced a society where consumerism is even possible) cultures show vastly increased senses of fairness. It's actually one of the things that makes them work.

In the closely related ultimatum game one player is given some sum of money to split (say, $100). Player one can decide how that split is to work, 50/50 or 99/1 and anything inbetween or the other way, their choice. Player two the decides whether to accept that split at which point both participants get their cut of the cash. If player two rejects the split as being "unfair" then no one gets anything.

The standard results (usually those results come from rather rich Ivy league students playing each other as that's the group that professors tend to have access to) indicate that there is an inherent "fairness" bug built into human behaviour. If player one moves to something like a 70/30 split (and it's worth noting that no one ever offers better than 50/50, there's just no 40/60 splits out there) then the odds of the deal being rejected soar.

People really are willing to punish themselves to enforce some idea of fairness.

And that's where the usual analysis stops: people are fair so capitalism Yah! Boo! Sucks!

However, some researchers have started to play this very same game with people who are not rather rich Ivy League students. And the results in non-capitalist, non-market and non-consumer societies are very different. Here people act more like the conventional game theory would expect: when offered a 98/2 split player two will take it. Heck, it's 2 free dollars, why not? People in non-capitalist and non-consumer cultures do not seem willing to pay a price themselves to punish perceived unfairness.

All of which shows us that capitalist consumerism brings with it (or, as certain researchers posit, the behavioural change is what makes capitalist and free market societies work, that understanding about the quid pro quo) a heightened sense of fairness and equity, not a lowered one.

As I say, we'd not expect Brand (or Hari) to get their economics correct but to get it 180 degrees the wrong way around is still pretty impressive.