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Is Greed Good?

Christoph Uhlhaas writes in Scientific American Mind:

Economists are finding that social concerns often trump selfishness in financial decision making, a view that helps to explain why tens of millions of people send money to strangers they find on the Internet.

Could you buy a used car online, sight unseen and without a test-drive? How about a plane? A vehicle changes hands on eBay Motors every 60 seconds, including one private business jet that sold for $4.9 million. Every second buyers collectively swap more than $1,839 for products through eBay, sending money to complete strangers with no guarantee that the goods they buy will in fact arrive, let alone in the condition they expect.

As a rule, they are not disappointed. To some economists, this is a borderline miracle, because it contradicts the concept of Homo economicus (economic man) as a rational, selfish person who single-mindedly strives for maximum profit. According to this notion, sellers should pocket buyers’ payments and send nothing in return. For their part, buyers should not trust sellers—and the market should collapse.

Economist Axel Ockenfels of the University of Cologne in Germany and his colleagues have spent the past several years figuring out why this does not happen. It turns out that humans do not always behave as if their sole concern is their personal financial advantage—and even when they do, they consider social motives in the profit-making equation. As Ockenfels has discovered, a sense of fairness often plays a big role in people’s decisions about what to do with their money and possessions, and it is also an essential part of what drives trust in markets full of strangers such as eBay.

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Categories: Economics
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