The 'gratitude trap' where Hungarian patients keep falling

As Rothstein argued at length in his book about the problem of social trust, institutions come in many different flavors: explicitly codified law systems, implicitly taken-for-granted exchange arrangements, and so on. Broadly speaking, they all constitute arrangements of some sort for aggregating individuals and regulating their behaviors through the use of (collectively shared) rules. Moreover, they are all necessary to enable a market system: in their absence, as Douglass North (the 1992 winner of the Nobel prize in economics) showed, entering into and upholding the kind of agreements that constitute the foundation of transactions in a market economy would be too costly for any potential party to take the risk.

Under this respect, all institutions do (at least) two things: present incentives, and induce strategies (by making it plausible to calculate what the other agents are likely to do). The problem, which Rothstein’s broad approach certainly did not overlook, is that different institutions may fulfill these two tasks in dramatically different ways. This became immediately clear to me when I realized (by accident, literally speaking) how widespread and yet ill-defined is the rule system governing the invisible market economy flourishing at the margins of the Hungarian state health system.

But first let me quickly introduce the accident that set everything in motion.

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Meat-eating in the eyes of young vegetarians

Not all transgressions are equal in the eyes of a child. Asked to evaluate the permissibility of certain actions (hitting another child, or stealing a toy from her) young children are quick to judge these actions wrong. Their judgment does not change when it is made explicit that in these hypothetical scenarios there are no rules or authority figures condemning these particular actions. Even more tellingly, when asked about conventional transgressions, such as wearing pajamas in the classroom, they suddenly ground their judgment in the presence (or absence) of an explicit rule condemning that specific practice. Children (it seems) insist that harming another child is bad, no matter the circumstances, and the reason why they do so is not simply because they do not pay attention to contextual changes. In fact, by acknowledging that wearing a weird uniform in class would be acceptable in a world without rules against odd classroom uniforms, they give us reasons to think that they have different normative expectations for different moral domains.
Turiel and Smetana have been the main proponents of this idea. They argue that, when faced with examples of interpersonal harm, young children behave as moral autodidacts (Turiel, 2006) In other words, children's judgment about the wrongness of a harmful action does not depend upon the existence of a governing rule or a social norm. Moreover, as Nucci (2001) emphasizes, moral reasoning in this domain exhibit a cluster of other specific features, such as rule and act generalizability (it is considered wrong for members of other societies not to have a given rule condemning moral transgression as well as to engage in a harmful action, even if their society does not have a rule about it). While there is a general agreement with the contention that the prescriptive force of moral standards is perceived as objective and universal, Turiel's idea that such type of moral reasoning is exclusively deployed in the harm domain has spurred an ongoing controversy in moral psychology (see, for instance, two recent criticism of Turiel's distinction between moral and conventional transgressions by Haidt, 2012, and Rai & Fiske, 2011). 

Taking Turiel's idea at face value, his theory naturally raises a question: How do children differentiate between the moral and the conventional domains? To find out, says Paul Harris, we should ask vegetarian children.

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Policing friendships. Lessons from the equine world

Imagine two young chimpanzees. One is swaggering, stood on two feet, his coat all puffed up, frantically waving his arms. The other, few meters away, is hooting loudly while beating his hands on the bark of a dead mango tree. They’re both ready to charge. Yet, their postures give away much of their fears for the imminent clash. Suddenly, the second chimp stops his dramatic display. Time for reluctance is over. They both rush against each other in a rather clumsy dogtrot. At first, it’s a dust-up, but soon it becomes a chase paced by high-pitched screams. The first chimp tries to flee away from his opponent, without success. There’s no way to slow down the chase. Every time the first chimp tries to whimper submissively toward the rival, the drummer knocks him down. Not even his desperate resort to biting seems to stop the second chimp. Sucked into the fight, neither of the two chimps notices the big female approaching. Only when her furious scream smothers the frightened chimp’s shrieks, they finally see her. The intervention is quick and resolute. She brings herself close to the aggressor, a bulging lip face greeting him. The drummer, still frenzied from the brawl, barely manages to restrain himself. She stomps the ground twice, glancing at her son, now back on his knuckles. The rival retreats. Fight’s over.


Despite my dramatic rendition of the events, the interpretation is definitely straightforward. Two chimps started a fight, the shrieks of the weaker animal alerted the mother, who was probably chewing on some fruits nearby, until she decided to intervene and bring the conflict to an abrupt halt. The reasons for her behavior are easy to guess.

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