Anti-Profit Beliefs: How People Neglect the Societal Benefits of Profit
Profit-seeking firms are stereotypically depicted as immoral and harmful to society. At the same time, profit-driven enterprise has contributed immensely to human prosperity. Though scholars agree that profit can incentivize societally beneficial behaviors, people may neglect this possibility. In 7 studies, we show that people see business profit as necessarily in conflict with social good, a view we call anti-profit beliefs. Studies 1 and 2 demonstrate that U.S. participants hold anti-profit views of real U.S. firms and industries. Study 3 shows that hypothetical organizations are seen as doing more harm when they are labeled “for-profit” rather than “non-profit,” while Study 4 shows that increasing harm to society is viewed as a strategy for increasing a hypothetical firm’s long-run profitability. Studies 5–7 demonstrate that carefully prompting subjects to consider the long run incentives of profit can attenuate anti-profit beliefs, while prompting short run thinking does nothing relative to a control. Together, these results suggest that the default view of profits is zero-sum. While people readily grasp how profit can incentivize firms to engage in practices that harm others, they neglect how it can incentivize firms to engage in practices that benefit others. Accordingly, people’s stereotypes of profit-seeking firms are excessively negative. Even in one of the most market-oriented societies in history, people doubt the contributions of profit-seeking industry to societal progress.