Would You Kill A Mouse For Ten Dollars?

Would You Kill A Mouse For Ten Dollars?

A new study into the effects of markets on moral values has found that people are more likely to authorise killing animals when operating within bilateral market-like conditions. Participants were given the option to either receive no money and to save the life of a laboratory mouse, or to earn money and accept the killing of the mouse. The results show a clear link between markets and eroded moral values.

Mouse picture from Shutterstock

Researchers from the Center for Economics and Neuroscience at the University of Bonn in Germany asked volunteers whether they would forego 10 Euros in profit to save the life of a healthy mouse.

For the experiment, subjects were informed about the process of how the mice would be killed: “The mouse is gassed. The gas flows slowly into the hermetically sealed cage. The gas leads to breathing arrest. At the point at which the mouse is not visibly breathing anymore, it remains in the cage for another 10 minutes. It will then be removed.”

The study was not a simulation: the lives of real mice were determined by the experiment, with those that were spared given comfortable living conditions for the duration of their lifespans (approval for the study was given by the Ethics Committee of the University of Bonn).

While participants were reluctant to kill the mice for personal profit, the introduction of market-like conditions dramatically increased the proportion willing to see the creature killed in exchange for the money — and the process made them feel less bad about it. The justification “if I don’t do it, someone else will” seems to apply.

We have shown that markets reduce moral concerns. Additional support comes from self-reported feelings of bad conscience. In case a subject decided to kill a mouse he was asked about feelings of bad conscience on a seven point Likert scale. Traders in the bilateral market express significantly lower feelings of bad conscience than subjects in the individual condition.

The researchers compare this ‘Mouse Paradigm’ to universal objections over forced child labor: “Many people express objections against child labor and other forms of exploitation of the workforce. At the same time, they seem to ignore their moral standards when acting as market participants, searching and buying the cheapest electronics, fashion, or food, and thereby consciously or subconsciously creating the undesired negative consequences to which they generally object.”

The report concludes that society needs to think about where markets are appropriate—and where they are not.

Morals and Markets [sciencemag.org]


  • What BS. Choosing cheap food or electronics does not mean individuals condone or subconsciously contribute to child labour. The issue is information presented, not the decision.
    Many people would have no issue killing thousands of bred mice, but I doubt many would buy a tshirt if it said 20% off because produced by child labour below minimum wage. Just because one tshirt is more expensive, means nothing about how it was produced.

    • The analogy does have some merit — Aussies regularly snap up dirt-cheap clothes from places like Paddy’s Markets but I doubt many shoppers bother to research where the products came from, how they were manufactured or by whom. (Obviously no manufacturer is ever going to advertise the use of child labour — so ‘consumer ignorance’ isn’t really an excuse.)

      • The analogy only has merit if, in the scenario you have presented, they snap up dirt-cheap clothes advertised with the disclaimer “Child labour used to produce these clothes”.

        Key point: in the mice example, the catalyst has implicit knowledge of the direct impact of their actions, regardless of ‘market’ conditions. Your example with clothing is based on assumption that cheap clothes = child labour. Imperfect knowledge isn’t even remotely equivalent to ‘consumer ignorance’, so dismissing lack of knowledge under the label of consumer ignorance based on retailers not advertising “child labour used here” isn’t entirely objective either.

    • It’s not as far fetched as you think. I’d say it’s pretty common knowledge that companies like Nike use sweatshops and/or child labour to make at least some of their products, but people still buy them in droves. Whether you do so consciously or not, you are condoning such production practices when you buy those products.

      Edit: I do agree though that price isn’t a reliable indicator of how something is produced, often it’s the more expensive products that are made using dodgy practices *cough*Apple*cough*

    • I think its an appropriate analogy. It’s not saying that price is indicative of production, but that people will say how bad child labour is, and then make absolutely no effort to make sure they buy products made ethically i.e. their only concern is price.

      I have a mate in the petroleum industry who cops shit from people in bars, and he tells me “but they drove to the venue”. They will bitch and moan about the industry, but make no effort to change their own behaviour.

  • Sounds interesting. I’m curious what the specifics of the market environment they created were, but the only copy of the paper I can find is behind the Science Magazine paywall. If it encouraged a sense of detachment, I can certainly see how people would seem to be less likely to enforce their moral stance.

  • If you gave me $10 to kill mice running around my house, I’d do it, because yuck.

    But if I was asked to gas a mouse for cash… No. In scenario A, my motivation is to rid my home of a pest with the incentive of cash. In scenario B, I’m being asked to kill an innocent creature for financial gain.

  • this is hardly an analog to sweatshop labour, the participants here were told straight up the situation, the mouse will die and you get $10 or neither happens, your choice.

    if they chose to take the money and let the mouse die, then thats nothing but a personal choice that a mouses life isn’t worth $10, sweatshop labour is hidden, not widely known about and takes some serious work to figure out who is doing it and to what extend.

    if the participants were told they could have $10 that a mouse is holding, then the reactions, like what happens to the mouse holding the $10 etc, were recorded that would be more analogous then this.

  • Most of you have missed the point, because this summary of the study doesn’t really get to the guts of the matter. The point is when market forces are introduced, the value of the mouse is dramatically decreased. In other words the study uses market forces to put a value on the mouses life.

    The theory is that “If I don’t take the money, someone else will, so I’ll just take the money.”

    It’s a completely reasonable study, and the comparison to cheap clothing is valid.

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