Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Stocking up and growing food: An erosion of trust in the division of labor

Society requires trust in the distribution of knowledge.

Over the past few months, there have been a number of news articles about people stocking up on goods and guns, growing vegetables, and raising chickens. It seems as though the current economic climate has led some people to start doing things for themselves.

It is easy to see where this behavior comes from.

Societies distribute responsibilities across people. I don't need to know how to fix my car or air conditioner, heal my illnesses, protect my life and property, or grow my food, because someone else does it for me. Instead, I just need to know where to go to get all of these services.

In a 2002 paper in Child Development, Donna Lutz and Frank Keil demonstrated that even 4- and 5-year-old children know a lot about who they should ask to get particular kinds of information. For example, children knew that you were better off asking a doctor than a car mechanic about how to fix a broken arm, or why some people are born with red hair, but that you were better off asking a car mechanic than a doctor about how to fix a lawn mower or how to build a tree house.

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Distributing knowledge across people has a potential downside as well, of course. You have to trust the experts in all of these areas to do their job well and correctly. For example, when you bring your car to the mechanic, you don't know exactly what is wrong with it. You have to trust that the mechanic is going to diagnose and repair the car properly, tell you honestly what was wrong with it, and charge you a reasonable amount for the work. Without being an expert in repair yourself, you have no way of checking up on whether the mechanic has done a proper job.

And that leads to the do-it-yourself movement that the news reports are highlighting. There seems to be an erosion of trust right now. Banks-which were supposed to protect out money-made bad decisions and lost a lot of money instead. There have been a number of tainted food scandals. Children's toys with lead paint have had to be recalled. In the United States, there is a broad mistrust of government operations. This lack of trust highlights for people how reliant they are on others for their survival.

It will be interesting to see whether improvements in the economy will lead to greater trust, and whether that will affect the number of do-it-yourselfers.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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