Testing the Invisible Hand on “What Would You Do?” and The Office

In his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote about the Invisible Hand of markets.  The Invisible Hand can allocate resources without  specific, direct action.

I don’t have to order gasoline from an oil company weeks ahead of time, I show up at the gas station and it’s ready to be purchased.  The Invisible Hand works through self-interest, supply and demand and competition and is guided by price and buying signals.

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith also writes about four sources of moral approval that keep our behavior in check.  Those sources of moral approval are our senses of prudence, propriety, benevolence and justice.  These four sources govern our interactions with others.

I consider this an extended Invisible Hand.  Our behavior toward one another is guided by signals from others that let us know how well we are applying our four senses of moral approval.

While watching ABC’s What Would You Do? this evening, it occurred to me that the idea of the show is to push beyond the edge of the envelope of our senses of moral approval and see how others in the area react.

What happens is that we see the Extended Invisible Hand in action.  Other people act as a check on behavior that is deemed inappropriate.

For example, one setup was based in a grocery store where the stores’ bagger was an actor with Down’s syndrome.  Another actor in the check-out line made rude comments about the bagger.  The idea was to see how the people behind the rude actor would behave.

Many people gave corrective feedback.  Some told the rude actor to “chill out”, another reminded him that the person was someone’s son.  One lady threatened to “punch him out” (which would be a visible hand, sorry).

These people were sending clear signals to the actors that their behavior did not meet their moral approval.  It would take an extremely disconnected person to not respond to these signals and modify their behavior back within acceptable social norms.  This is the Extended Invisible Hand at work.

On a recent episode of NBC’s The Office, branch manager Michael Scott got his own slaps from the Extended Invisible Hand.  After finding out that he was seeing a married woman, everyone in the office turned on him and sent clear signals of their disapproval.  He tried to block those signals for some time because he wanted to keep seeing the lady.

As the pressure built, he decided he would do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted and didn’t need anyone’s approval.  He went to the break room, pulled a cake from the fridge and began to eat it, even after being told that the cake was for a birthday party later.  “I don’t care.  I want cake now.  I’ll eat it.”

Another worker inspired by Scott’s guts decided to ask out a lady in the office that he found attractive, even though he was already seeing someone.  He crumbled as soon as the new lady asked about the status with his current girlfriend.  “Forget it.  I care too much about what other people think.”

Finally, Michael Scott came around and responded to the moral disapproval by breaking up with the married woman.  The Extended Invisible Hand worked its magic in prime time.

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