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Tuesday 25 October 2011

A Lollapalooza Effect – Capitalism & The Death of Wang Yue

Morality and Cuture

Wang Yue, a two-year old Chinese girl, has died after she was run down in the street, then run over again as the driver made off, then ignored by eighteen passers-by and a collection of market traders while she lay injured, before being hit again by another driver who also drove away before, finally, someone pulled her to safety. These events, caught on video by a security camera, have started a furious debate in China over whether the pursuit of profit has destroyed the country’s morality.

More likely, though, is that we’re seeing what happens when multiple behavioural effects combine in the same direction to create a lollapalooza cascade of otherwise inexplicable behavior. For while we may have basic moral principles these can be set aside if our culture encourages us so to do and, if that culture actually provides incentives for us to do so, what you get is children left to die in the street while people walk by.

Bystander Effects

The debate around Wang Yue’s death centres on three issues. Firstly, is Chinese culture now so money obsessed that people calculate the financial benefits and consequences before deciding whether to help a dying child? Secondly, have ridiculous rulings in Chinese courts led to perverse incentives for people to not help those in distress? Or, thirdly, is this simply a manifestation of a cross-cultural behaviour known as the bystander effect, which causes people to walk on rather than helping those in distress?

The bystander effect is a long-established human behaviour. It’s probably most associated with the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, who was supposedly attacked within earshot of lots of people who could have helped, but didn’t. In fact, the story was probably sensationalised – at least one person phoned the police, and the vast majority of the supposed onlookers hadn’t got a clue what was going on. As Rachel Manning explains:
“The three key features of the Kitty Genovese story that appear in social psychology textbooks (that there were 38 witnesses, that the witnesses watched from their windows for the duration of the attack, and that the witnesses did not intervene) are not supported by the available evidence”
And she adds:
“The grip that the original story has on the popular and professional imagination seems impervious to correction thus far.”
Moral Disengagement

Despite this there’s not much doubt that the bystander effect does exist, where people take their cues from others about whether to intervene or not. If someone decides to help then others are likely to follow. Robert Cialdini, in Influence, makes it clear what we need to do when we need help:
“Pick out one person and assign the task to that individual. Otherwise it is too easy for everyone in the crowd to assume the someone else should help. Of all the techniques in this book designed to produce compliance with a request, this one may be the most important to remember”.
Yet we know that two year olds are unlikely to ask directly for help – they’re more likely to burst into tears and look lost. And certainly it’s hard to believe that a child in clear distress on a road in front of you is something anyone should leave to someone else. However, although the bystander effect can’t explain this behaviour directly, it does provide a clue. Because when we need to justify some unjustifiable behaviour to ourselves we’ll likely draw on social norms around us: if no one else is intervening then it’s OK for me not to. This is a consequence of the behavior that we investigated in Euphemisms for Morally Disengaged Managers – Albert Bandura's process of moral disengagement.

The question then, though, is why would this unjustifiable behaviour even be considered in the first place?

Incentive Bias

To understand that we need to look at the superpower of incentives. Incentives drive human behaviour, often perversely as we saw in Perverse Incentives Are Daylight Robbery. In one notable example, research by Daron Acemoglu and Joshua D. Angrist showed that the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act, intended to prevent employed discrimination against disabled people, led to a reduction in the number of disabled people being employed.  In a similar vein China has had, unfortunately, a number of highly publicised legal cases that are likely to incentivise people to behave with apparent callous disregard of others.

In one particularly egregious case a Chinese judge awarded costs against someone who came to the aid of a fall victim on the grounds that they wouldn't have helped them unless they’d caused the accident.  Even by the dubious rational standards of the legal profession this is to mix up cause and effect in an extraordinary way. This, and other similar cases, are virtually bound to cause people to think twice about whether or not they actually go to someone’s aid. In a further twist the lady who actually did finally drag Wang Yue to safety is being accused of doing so to profit from the act. Of course, in context, it doesn’t matter whether a good act is financially motivated or not, but this rather basic idea seems to be being lost in the noise.

Consequences of Capitalism?

So with the financial incentive of wanting to avoid being accused of causing an accident allied to the self-justification provided by bystander apathy we have fertile grounds for some pretty appalling actions. However, even these behavioral traits have to be set alongside what most of us would consider to be normal human morality. No matter what the personal cost to ourselves is it actually conceivable that we could leave a child dying in the street?

This is the question that China is currently really struggling with, and which lies at the heart of the real debate. Has the economic growth of the country, a red-blooded version of dog-eat-dog capitalism with profit the only common good, overwhelmed traditional Chinese concepts of morality and good behaviour? Although it’s hard to believe that this could really happen we do have some evidence to show that the more people are exposed to the brutal logic of capitalist economics the more likely they are to exhibit rational economic behaviour – such as maximising their profits – rather than engaging in altruistic acts.

The Lollapalooza Effect

In one particularly eye-opening piece of research requiring mutual co-operation, which we looked at in Studying Economics Makes You Mean,  it turned out that the only people that behaved with the moral deficiency that economists predict would be rational were – economists. We've also seen, of course, that corporations are essentially immoral in a normal human sense, driven by the single goal of maximising shareholder value, although, of course, this often turns into maximising management’s rewards instead.

Capitalism itself doesn't stop people behaving with basic human decency but it can cause havoc if not properly managed.  If you combine a focus on maximising returns with the incentive of wanting to avoid paying fines for a good deed and add to this mix a basis for self-justifying a terrible action because other people are behaving the same way you possibly – just possibly – get a two year old left in the street to die while people walk by. This is the lollapalooza effect, when multiple behavioral biases combine to create a result so mind numbingly counter-intuitive that you can scarcely believe it possible.

Hope in a Child’s Morality

Fixing this, though, isn’t that hard. Simply ensuring that people are rewarded – or at least not punished – for good deeds, regardless of why they carried them out is probably enough to tip the balance. Enacting "Good Samaritan" laws to make it a crime to not help someone in distress – the current proposal – will make a difference; but as it casts a moral decision in financial terms it won't change the moral framework, merely skew the financial incentives in a direction that encourages more apparently moral behavior.  

There is very little about the death of Wang Yue that we can take comfort from. But apparently (*) there’s a  cameo in the middle of that terrible video that gives a little hope. The one person that didn’t walk by wasn't an adult, but a child. who tried to pull its mother towards the stricken toddler. It’s not much, but at least a child’s moral sense, unsullied by financial considerations, is something to build a better world on.

(*) I say "apparently" because I didn’t see it myself and I'm not going to watch this a second time.

Related articles: Studying Economics Makes You MeanPerverse Incentives Are Daylight RobberyEuphemisms for Morally Disengaged Managers


  1. Isn't the exceptionality of the case an argument against the generalization you make? I can imagine things were worse in China in this respect in Mao's era

  2. I think the general point is that this isn't an isolated incident: it's just a particularly nasty one that happened to be caught on camera. There seems to be a theme of perverse monetary incentives lying behind these all of cases.

    As to whether this is indicative of a cultural change or not is, as you point out, impossible to say. However, if (say) this sort of behaviour also happened in other eras then we would either be looking for a general cultural reason or for a different reason caused by different circumstances. The former, I think, is unlikely while the latter is entirely possible, but still wouldn't negate the argument.

    However, I fully accept the point that this is anecdotal evidence: and as such, suspect. Do doubt, however, some bright spark will soon be conducting a study of Chinese morality in the light of financial incentives to be immoral.

  3. "We've also seen, of course, that corporations are essentially immoral in a normal human sense, driven by the single goal of maximising shareholder value, although, of course, this often turns into maximising management’s rewards instead."

    Well, of course. Why would a manager ACTUALLY try and maximise shareholder value instead of his own? He would of course say he wants to help the shareholder. I own lots of stock - I really have no idea of who the best chairperson would be.
    Hmmmm....why would someone running for public office actually want to help the public more than themselves?
    A big problem is that the winner is the person who can APPEAR more sincere, not BE more sincere....