This viral video (Not Safe For Life… seriously, fairly disturbing) of a Chinese toddler getting run over by a van has been making the rounds. Most infuriating, the video shows many bystanders passing the toddler and refusing to help. This has led to substantial discussion about how cold-hearted the Chinese are, as well as other cultural stereotypes.
But one thing worth noting here is that many cultural differences stem from the incentives developed in default rules.
According to reports the van driver had just split up from his girlfriend and was talking on his mobile phone when he hit the girl.
“If she is dead, I may pay only about 20,000 yuan ($3,125). But if she is injured, it may cost me hundreds of thousands yuan,” said the driver over the phone to the media, before he gave himself up to the police.
This sounds like absolutely vile cost-benefit analysis bordering on straight-up murder, but the way that costs are distributed in accidents changes our behavior before and during accidents. Vile though it may be, were the costs shifted differently, and the costs of death higher than the costs of injury, perhaps the driver would have behaved differently.
Similarly, much outrage has been directed towards the “cold-hearted” bystanders who watched for seven minutes before a rag collector moved the girl to the curb. Why a rag-collector and not one of the middle-class shopkeepers and shoppers? China does not have a Good Samaritan law that protects bystanders who help in an accident. As a result, there are cases picked up in the media like this one:
In November of 2006, an elderly woman surnamed Xu in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, suffered two fractures after falling at a bus station. She later successfully sued a man named Peng Yu, who claimed to have voluntarily helped her.
Despite a lack of evidence, a local court ruled that Peng was guilty and ordered him to pay compensation of over 40,000 yuan ($6,184) to the woman. The verdict was based on the “logical thinking” that it was highly possible that Peng had knocked the woman down, otherwise he would not have helped her to hospital. The case was eventually settled out of court with mediation from provincial officials.
Since then, the name “Peng Yu” has become a label for such cases, leading many to believe that helping out an old lady might not be the best idea.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. The reason you would get out of your car to help someone injured in the road has nothing to do with your legal liability. Because of the kind of person you are, you would risk your life, financial standing, etc. to help a person in need.
But we live in a society where that background norm is enforced through Good Samaritan laws, and a strong presumption in favor of the person coming to aid. If the background norm were different, you might behave differently. And if the incentives moved in the other direction, one might expect many fewer Good Samaritans.
Consider a final example. The Japanese famously return stolen and found goods to the authorities (most notably after the recent earthquake and tsunami). Many chalk this up to a cultural norm that the Japanese have of honor, duty, and communal strength. Yet, it is also a reflection of a legal regime that strongly encourages finders to return stolen goods and encourages police to return goods to owners. Police boxes dot Japan for people to place found goods, and finders get a small reward for found property. Furthermore, keeping the found goods counts as embezzlement with a substantial fine. Japan also has firmer policies in place regarding police return of stolen goods. (As James May puts it on Top Gear, “I would have obeyed the speed limit, officer, but frankly, the police never found the TV that was stolen from me.”)
Maybe the Japanese return goods because they are naturally honest and communatarian. Maybe the Chinese commit hit-and-runs and ignore injured toddlers because they are naturally cold-hearted.
Or maybe cultural differences have as much to do with legal incentive structures as with innate culture.