Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Are Political Economists Selfish and Indoctrinated? Evidence from a Natural Experiment

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Are Political Economists Selfish and Indoctrinated? Evidence from a Natural Experiment

Article excerpt


Economic science is constantly being accused of having a blind spot. It is said that, compared to efficiency, equity is not given its just weight in the education of economists. Moreover, it is argued that the Homo economicus is too narrowly defined and that it does not explain the behavior of human beings accurately. According to the critics, the consequences of this oversimplified view of human behavior is that the students of economics act in a more selfish way than students of other social sciences. (1) Economists create the type of selfish persons (the Homo economicus) they axiomatically assume in their theories. If this claim indeed holds in reality, the critics are right in emphasizing that economic science makes the much-needed cooperation in the world more difficult. Hirschman (1982, 1466) puts it the following way: "The emphasis on self-interest typical of capitalism makes it more difficult to secure the collective goods and cooperation increasingly needed for the proper functioning of the system in its later stages."

There is evidence that students of economics behave more selfishly than other people (e.g., Frank et al., 1993; 1996; Marwell and Ames, 1981; Frank and Schulze, 2000). The results are mainly based on laboratory experiments with students. These studies cannot exclude that economists see the experimental setting as "an JQ test of sorts" (Frank, 1988, 226). Students may play the equilibrium learned in their economics classes, but they do not apply it to real life situations. In contrast, we use a unique and extremely large data set (more than 96,500 observations) to study the behavior of economics students in a natural setting. At the University of Zurich, every student has to decide each semester whether he or she wants to donate money to two social funds managed by the university. We can observe the decisions of the students over five semesters and compare the behavior of economists with that of students of other disciplines. Most important, the data set enables us to analyze whether a possible difference in b ehavior is due to indoctrination in economic education or due to selection. Previous studies have had serious difficulties to discriminate between the competing hypothesis that behavioral differences emerge because (1) selfish persons choose to study economics (selection hypothesis) or (2) training in economics causes students to act more selfishly (indoctrination hypothesis). The data set used allows addressing these two questions. Moreover, the panel structure of the data enables to exclude individual heterogeneity by controlling for personal fixed effects.

Comparing the behavior of economists and noneconomists in a natural setting, we reach significantly different results from previous studies:

1. Political economists (to use the classical term) are not more selfish than the average student, but students of business economics are.

2. The higher level of selfishness of business students is due to self-selection, not indoctrination.

3. Students of the economic sciences (i.e., both political and business economists) are about as selfish as law students. The willingness of economics students to contribute decreases during their studies somewhat but to a lesser extent than medical and veterinary students.

The article proceeds by presenting previous studies in section II. Section III discusses the data used. Section IV submits the analysis and results of our inquiry. Section V draws conclusions.


Frank et al. (1993; 1996) seem to have convinced most of the academic community that an economics education has a negative influence on a student's cooperative behavior. (2) But the literature on the topic is much less uniform than the conclusion of Frank et al. (1996, 192), who argue that there is "a heavy burden of proof on those who insist that economics training does not inhibit cooperation. …

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