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Market exposure and human morality


According to evolutionary theories, markets may foster an internalized and universalist prosociality because it supports market-based cooperation. This paper uses the cultural folklore of 943 pre-industrial ethnolinguistic groups to show that a society’s degree of market interactions, proxied by the presence of intercommunity trade and money, is associated with the cultural salience of (1) prosocial behaviour, (2) interpersonal trust, (3) universalist moral values and (4) moral emotions of guilt, shame and anger. To provide tentative evidence that a part of this correlation reflects a causal effect of market interactions, the analysis leverages both fine-grained geographic variation across neighbouring historical societies and plausibly exogenous variation in the presence of markets that arises through proximity to historical trade routes or the local degree of ecological diversity. The results suggest that the coevolutionary process involving markets and morality partly consists of economic markets shaping a moral system of a universalist and internalized prosociality.

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Fig. 1: Importance of markets and moral universalism across pre-industrial societies.
Fig. 2: Binscatter partial correlation plots for the relationships between morality and markets.
Fig. 3: Coefficient plots for regression coefficient estimates of the markets index.
Fig. 4: Binscatter partial correlation plots for the relationships between markets and distance to trade routes and ecological polarization.

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I thank J. Henrich and N. Nunn for useful discussions and feedback. I received no specific funding for this work.

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B.E. designed the research, analysed data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Benjamin Enke.

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Enke, B. Market exposure and human morality. Nat Hum Behav 7, 134–141 (2023).

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