Selfish, dishonest, mean … who are you calling an economist?

Nearly three decades ago, the Journal of Public Economics published a curious and mildly disturbing piece of research, revealing that postgraduate students of economics were more likely than others to “free ride” in a laboratory game, effectively exploiting other players for their own benefit. The discovery generated a little niche in the economics literature, exploring the question: does studying economics make you a bad person?

The prosecution has assembled quite a case. A recent survey by Yoram Bauman and Elaina Rose, two economists from the University of Washington, explains that in experiments, economics students are less generous, more likely to choose an unco-operative approach and more likely to accept bribes.

There have been a couple of contrary pieces of evidence. For instance, a study of who paid their dues to professional bodies such as the American Economic Association found that economists were more honest than sociologists and political scientists. And perhaps the budding economists are not truly mean and selfish, but are simply showing that they have mastered their studies by producing the behaviour described in simple textbook models. Arguably, the students of economics are not doing anything sinister, any more than if they calculated the roots of a quadratic equation.

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Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.