Monday, February 4, 2008

From Taxed to Socially Unacceptable

The NY Times reports (2/2/08) that when Ireland imposed a 33 cent per bag tax on plastic bags, usage dropped by 94%. But more interestingly, within a year "carrying them became socially unacceptable". This is a case of winning over a change in social behavior by engaging "moral emotions". We lack a very good understanding of how this comes about. If everyone else is doing it, we tend to do it as well even if we think it is bad to do. Once we make the leap to the other side, we are quick to judge others. But just how do the numbers come in to the picture? Two ways - we are less likely to make the leap if others are not doing so as well. But I also think we are less shy about judging others if most are also doing what we do. Here what is so interesting is that taxes (and hence self-interest) get the ball rolling but in the process manage to engage these much more complex psychological mechanisms.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the details, but I wonder if this instance of change in moral/social sentiments(or behavior) is at all related to what seemed to be going on in Stanley Milgram's classic experiments at Yale. In both cases we seem to have some sort of change in moral/social behavior that seemed to be influenced by an external source (taxing by the government on the one hand, and the commands of a lab tech, on the other). Absent the laboratory conditions, people would be horrified at the prospect of electrocuting a stranger in another room. Similarly, absent the taxation, people wouldn't stigmatize the use of plastic bags. There are salient difference between the two examples, but my initial intuitions say that the two examples might share some important similarities that could shed some light on what's going on in the Ireland case.
-Michael Gentzel
Johns Hopkins University