Do Economists Play Well with Others? Experimental Evidence on the Relationship between Economics Education and Pro-Social Behavior

By McCannon, Bryan C. | American Economist, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Do Economists Play Well with Others? Experimental Evidence on the Relationship between Economics Education and Pro-Social Behavior


McCannon, Bryan C., American Economist


I. INTRODUCTION

Does an economics education affect a person's behavior outside of the classroom? Does it promote wealth-generating behaviors? Are economists and economics students more selfish and less trustworthy and, therefore, less successful in social settings? Students and educators in economics should be concerned about the impact of the education and, specifically, the answer to these questions.

Previous research is less than optimistic about the behavior of economics students. Marwell and Ames (1981) compare behavior of experimental subjects who are high school students to decisions made by graduate students in economics. They find that the economists contribute significantly less to public goods, free-riding more. Carter and Irons (1991) conduct experiments of a bargaining game, differentiating decisions made by economics from non-economics students. Economics students are shown to be willing to accept less and to make lower offers. Frank, Gilovich and Regan (1993) report on surveys of academics and Prisoner's Dilemma experiments with students. The proportion of academic economists who report making charitable contributions is less than other fields, and students majoring in economics are less likely to cooperate in the game. Frank and Schulze (2000) conduct a corruption experiment where individuals (an agent) choose how large of a bribe to take for recommending a service provider (to a principal). Economics students are shown to be more willing to take the corrupt bribe. Frey and Meier (2003) provide empirical evidence that economics students contribute less to charities than those in other fields. One study provides results of positive, ethical behaviors. Yezer, Goldfarb and Poppen (1996) conduct a "lost-letter" experiment where addressed, stamped, unsealed envelopes containing money are left in classrooms. Those left in economics classes are shown to be significantly more likely to be returned.

What is unclear about the previous research is whether or not it is in fact the education that is causing these behaviors. Is it really that the coursework is indoctrinating students to behave "like an economist" (rather than just think like one) or is it an artifact of who chooses to study economics?

A few studies have addressed this issue in particular. Carter and Irons (2001), Frank and Schulze (2000), and Frey and Meier (2003) all employ controls for field of study, year in school, and an interaction term as an econometric technique to differentiate selection effects from learning effects. All of these studies suggest that it is the selection effects that matter--those who choose to study economics are different. Little evidence of a learning or indoctrination effect can be found. One shortcoming with this approach is, while it addresses the selection effect by differentiating freshmen from upperclass students, it does not deal with the endogenous decision to study economics for each individual. Also, as students change majors and universities, the cohort of freshman can be a different group from those who are upperclassmen in economics. Finally, it may not necessarily be the decision to major in economics which is the primary determinant of behavior, but may instead be proxying for the true driving force of these behaviors. For example, Frey and Meier (2003) extend their analysis by collecting background information on a subset of the students in their data set. Once some of the background information, such as family income levels, is controlled for, the effect of selecting an economics major is reversed. Thus, additional work is needed to identify individual-level differences that drive both the decision to study economics and the behaviors observed in economic environments.

The Trust Game (Berg, Dickhaut and McCabe 1995) is well-suited to address this question. In it one player is given an endowment (here $5) and selects how much to keep for oneself and how much to give to another player. …

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