How economics makes you selfish

by Toby Manhire / 08 November, 2013
Research suggests economics attracts greedy students. And the subject makes them greedier.
Dismal news for the dismal science. It's not just that economics faces a "credibility crisis". That much we knew already. A different, although very possibly connected, discovery is that the discipline attracts greedy students. And makes them greedier.

That’s according to a stack of research surveyed by Adam Grant, writing for Psychology Today.

Evidence from the US indicates that “economics professors gave less money to charity than professors in other fields”, he explains. A German study finds that “economics students were more likely than students from other majors to recommend an overpriced plumber when they were paid to do it”.

Other research suggests variously that economics students are carved out of Adam Smith: they demonstrate “greater acceptance of greed”, “less concern for fairness”.

What is more, “altruistic values drop among economics majors”, and “after taking economics, students become more selfish and expect worse of others”.

In one study Grant and colleagues conducted they concluded, even, that “just thinking about economics can make us less caring”.

Grant, himself a business studies professor, says that alarming though this may be, the answer is not to stop studying economics, but to balance it with something that encourages less blinkered thinking.

He suggests “requiring economics majors to take courses in behavioural economics, which considers the role of ‘social preferences’ like fairness, altruism, cooperation, and even being rationally altruistic”, as well as “breadth courses in social sciences ... which place substantial emphasis on how people are concerned about others, not only themselves”.

But economics courses themselves should also “do a better job defining the principle of self-interest around utility, which involves anything a person values—including helping others”, he writes.

Without such remedies, Grant warns ...

... we may be dooming students and society to a fate foreshadowed by Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen. Calling economists “rational fools,” Sen observed: “The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron.”

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