The Social Psychology of Trade Agreements

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Originally posted on March 21, 2016.

The Sanders v. Clinton and Trump v. others debates offer, as do others, clashing arguments regarding free trade agreements:

  • Anti-trade agreement argument: “Free trade” agreements, such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), benefit corporations at the expense of American workers. Competing with low-wage foreign workers means lost American jobs and lower wages.

  • Pro-trade agreement argument: Ending free trade would raise the prices we pay for goods and would harm American companies (and workers) seeking to export products. The TPP eliminates many tariffs that other countries impose on American exports

Social psychologists have offered another consideration. In the long-term, is an economically interdependent world a safer world?

We know from social psychological research that sharing “superordinate goals” promotes peace., Muzafer Sherif’s classic boys’ camp experiments used isolation and competition to make strangers into bitter enemies. But with superordinate goals (restoring the camp water supply, freeing a stuck truck, pooling funds for a movie), he then made enemies into friends. Other research suggests that superordinate goals are not mere child’s play.

From Amazon tribes to European countries, peace arises when groups become interconnected and interdependent and develop an overarching social identity (Fry et al., 2012). Economic interdependence through international trade also motivates peace. “Where goods cross frontiers, armies won’t,” noted Michael Shermer (2006). With so much of China’s economy now interwoven with Western economies, their economic interdependence diminishes the likelihood of war between China and the West (from Myers & Twenge: Social Psychology, 12th edition)

What do you think: Is a world with free trade (rather than isolationism) a safer world?

And here’s an ethical question: Whose economic well-being should we care more about protecting—Americans’ or everyone’s?

To assess the extent to which people see themselves as “belonging to one human family”—an attitude that distinguished those who rescued Jews from the Nazis—social psychologist Sam McFarland developed an “Identification with All Humanity” scale, which is now supplemented by other measures of global human identification. What do you think: Should our circle of “moral inclusion” include all “God’s children”...or is it natural and appropriate to prioritize our national ingroup?

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see