A Demand for Encompassment: A Hayekian Experimental Parable about Political Psychology

Originally published in Rationality and Society

Emile Durkheim said that when all of the members of a tribe or clan come together, they can sanctify the sacred and experience a spiritual “effervescence.” Friedrich Hayek suggested that certain genes and instincts still dispose us toward the ethos and mentality of the hunter-gatherer band and that modern forms of political collectivism have, in part, been atavistic reassertions of such tendencies.

Experiments have explored the demand for coffee mugs, the demand for insurance, and the demand for saving a mouse. We conducted an experiment to explore the demand for encompassment.

We tested whether people are willing to sacrifice money to make an experience encompass the whole group. The experience was singing a Christmas carol together. In each trial, one person in the room was designated not to sing unless every one of the others in the room had made a payment sufficient so as to have that person sing. Whether the possiblenon-singer (PNS) sang depended on the sacrifices that others made to see to it that he or she sang as well, that is, their willingness to pay (WTP) to make the experience encompassing. 

The experiment involved no strategic element whatsoever. The best thing for the subject to do—“best” in terms of his or her own overall wellbeing, not narrowly in terms of money payment maximization—was simply to write down the maximum amount of money he or she would be willing to pay to ensure that the PNS, too, got to sing. That’s it, aside from singing and then filling out an exit questionnaire. 

How often did subjects choose to sacrifice money to help ensure that everyone in the group, including the PNS, would sing? The answer is 47.4% of the time. Furthermore, 59.6% of subjects did so in at least one trial. So, a majority of subjects, in at least one trial, sacrificed money to help ensure that everyone would sing. The subjects’ responses on the exit questionnaire showed that their chief reason for making such a sacrifice was that “it would be more fun if everyone sang.” Furthermore, the subjects reported significantly higher enjoyment when they had experienced encompassment. 

The experiment was not undertaken with an intention to show something surprising. The point of the experiment is to operationalize the idea of encompassment, to advance interest in the idea, and to provide evidence that there is often a demand for encompassment, even in trifling manifestations like that in our experiment. We believe that the idea of encompassing experience/sentiment deserves greater study, for the part it can play in explaining important things. 

In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim (1915), using terms such as “tribe” and “clan,” wrote of the ways of life of “primitive” societies to represent the “elementary forms” of religious life. He argues that “religious force is nothing other than the collective anonymous force of the clan” [which] “can be represented in the mind only in the form of the totem,” and thus, “the totemic emblem is like the visible body of god” (p. 221). Again, he says, “the god is only the figurative expression of the society” (p. 226). That is, the superior being, represented in totems and other collective representations, is actually a representation of society. It makes sense that, if society is a being, it is indeed a being superior to any individual person. But how does the society come to find figurative existence as a being? It is in the ritualized gatherings of the whole tribe or clan that society is translated to an emblematic, totemic being. In such universal gatherings, Durkheim says, people experience “effervescence.” “When they are once come together, a sort of electricity is formed by the collecting which quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation” (p. 215). Effervescence is a heightened sense of sacred being, which expresses itself in “co-operation and movements in unison,” notably chants, songs, and dance. “[I]t is in the midst of these effervescent social environments and out of this effervescence itself that the religious idea seems to be born” (pp. 218–219). Durkheim

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