Markets, Relationships and Trust

Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational is one of several in the “Malcolm Gladwell” category of books.  Such books point out the counter-intuitive, and debunk the rational, linear, deductive explanations that we so often assign to social phenomena.

It’s an antidote to any professional (economists come to mind) who believe man is a rational, transacting, self-interest-maximizing calculator.

One of his most compelling points happens at the intersection of relationships and markets.  In his example, imagine a great Thanksgiving dinner at your mother in-law’s—all the fixin’s.  And then you offer to pay her, say $150, for the experience.  To your surprise, she feels insulted!

You are now persona non grata at your in-laws’.  As Ariely explains, you reacted to a social situation with a market response. 

What happens when social norms collide with market norms?  As Ariely says: “the social norm then goes away for a long time.”

Ariely channels Alfie Kohn, who 15 years ago in Punished by Rewards  pointed out the de-motivating effect of monetary rewards.  The intrinsic pleasure children took in games was destroyed when researchers paid the kids to play the same games. 

Extrinsic incentives work, said Kohn: they work to incent more extrinsic incentives.  But at the cost of destroying intrinsic motivation.

Ariely cites a day care center where parents occasionally came late to pick up their kids.  To reduce tardy pickups, a penalty was assessed.  Whereupon tardiness increased.  Parents were grateful for the “permission” to pay a fine rather than incur social guilt.

On the face of it, then, companies ought to use more social incentivizing.  Or should they? Companies built around devotion to shareholder value and metrics that devolve to financials are asking for trouble when they try to play an honest game of relationships. Then the social norms are gone, for a long time.

Markets do two great things: they tend to make things less costly or more efficient.  And, they require more transparency.

Take my blogpost of two days ago, A Case Study in Low Trust, about untrustworthy behavior in the financial planning sector.  The problem with industry associations like NAPFA is that, despite failing the public, they insist on concocting arguments to transparency.  Here’s a case where markets—in the sense of freely available information, and a reduction in personal relationships—is precisely what’s required.

Too many policy debates these days take place on the ideologically rigid dimensions. 

-in finance, “markets” vs. “relationship” is a useless debate; it depends
-in health care, it isn’t “markets” vs. “socialism;" it depends
-“government should be run like a business” vs. “government should be run for the people” is a red herring; it depends.

Where corruption exists we need markets and transparency.  Where children are educated, as Ariely suggests (and Gladwell and Kohn tend to agree), we need focus on relationships and intrinsic motivation. 

Trust is not automatically the province of either one–again, it depends.  Market-driven transparency  can increase our trust in financial planners.  More relationships can increase our trust of suppliers.  It depends.

How about your issue?  Is it better served by markets, or by relationships?