Studying economics makes people more self-interested, economist says

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Are economists jerks? According to Robert Frank, a Cornell economist, his profession squashes cooperation and generosity, and he thinks he has data to prove it. In a Tuesday column for Huffington Post, Wharton professor Adam Grant explores research on economists and social behavior, and I’ll summarize.

One study found that economics professors give less money to charity than professors in other fields such as history, physics, chemistry, biology or philosophy. It also found that economics professors were more than twice as likely to give zero dollars to charity than professors in other fields. 

Another study found that economics majors were far more likely than their peers to rate greed as “generally good”, “correct,” and “moral”; and a bevy of other studies found economics majors to be less cooperative and more inclined to keep rather than share rewards.

Here’s the big question: do people with these traits choose to study economics, or does the study of economics change people?

There’s some evidence to suggest both are at play.  By marginal levels, even prior to taking any college-level courses, economics students in one study contributed less to charity than other students. 

But then, an Israeli study compared freshman to juniors and found a big increase of these tendencies over time.  At the very start of their freshman year, students planning to study economics rated traits such as helpfulness, honesty, loyalty and responsibility as highly as students in other fields. But by their third-year, economics students regarded these values as significantly less important than freshman econ students.

In one game theory study, econ students were significantly more likely to ‘defect’ rather than ‘cooperate’, and were more likely to stay selfish over time while non-economics students mature toward generosity.

In another study that followed students over a semester, those studying economic game theory were more likely to develop and exhibit selfish behaviors, and became more likely to expect selfish behavior from others.

To Frank, this suggests a pernicious effect of the self-interest theory. 

“By encouraging us to expect the worst in others it brings out the worst in us: dreading the role of the chump, we are often loath to heed our nobler instincts,” he wrote in Passions Within Reason.

And these dynamics may be fairly insidious.  One study found that even among non-economists, exposure to economic words led to a dampening of compassion.

With business now the most popular undergraduate major, and economics being a major component of such curriculum, Grant worries about inadvertently discouraging “prosocial behavior.”

He suggests that economics courses should do a better job of “defining the principle of self-interest around utility, which involves anything a person values — including helping others.”

Contact Karen Cyphers at karen@cyphersgroup.com.